This debut historical novel traces the fortunes of Confederate Cpl. Gabriel Masters, from his wounding in one of the final battles of the Civil War, through his physical and psychological trials and epiphanies during Reconstruction and beyond.
In a skillfully written prologue, an aging Masters sits “upon a rather simple rocking chair.” It’s Christmas Eve, 1917, and he thinks back to an earlier Christmas Eve, in 1864, when he stood guard in North Carolina and pondered the fires of the Union camp across the field. Hawkins, a lifelong Civil War buff and reenactor, is at his best here, capturing the look and feel of the period where matches are called lucifers, chicory stands in for coffee and the smell of wood smoke and wet wool permeates military encampments. He beautifully crafts his characters, and their dialogue is lively and genuine. Readers will feel their tension as they await combat, and when battle finally comes, it’s realistic and gritty. Through attrition, Masters soon rises to the rank of lieutenant during the fray. He’s hit in the leg by canister shot, and while he waits with other wounded comrades to be treated, he meets Nurse Clare Samuels, a woman whom Masters idealizes. After he’s sent to a makeshift hospital, he learns that his family and fiancee have been brutally murdered by Union soldiers and that the Confederate cause he’s fought for is all but lost. He bonds with Captain Mirreaux, a New Orleans horse breeder and vintner, who plays a significant role in Masters’ future. Masters later wanders the ruins of the Confederacy and finds success helping Mirreaux revive his business and starting a California vineyard. As the novel progresses, his view of the world and the war matures. The novel does have occasionally awkward dialogue attributions, such as, “asked his ebony friend” and “further asked Gabe.” However, this riveting novel, told from the Confederate point of view, offers a timely counterpoint to the current revival of interest in Abraham Lincoln, and delivers well-written historical exposition, intriguing plot twists and even well-developed minor characters.
A major first novel that will delight history buffs and Civil War aficionados.