A Civil War tale tracks the braided lives of six friends whose lives are upturned by national tumult.
In this debut novel, best friends Will and Aaron, 16 and 13 years old, stumble upon a wigwam in 1857 in the Illinois woods, a makeshift Native American hut concealed on the river bank. In the wigwam, they find a tomahawk and a medicine bag filled with colored beads. Over time, the structure becomes the official meeting spot for their extended group of youthful fellow travelers, and the physical symbol of their unbreakable bonds. Within the group, romance blossoms between Will and Allie, a self-assured tomboy who eventually disguises her gender to fight in the war, and between Aaron and Jenny Putnam, the daughter of a fire marshal. Another friend, Elmer Ellsworth, particularly close to Allie, becomes a colonel in the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, and dies taking down a Rebel flag, a harsh reminder of the war brewing in the background. Huelskamp has crafted a scrupulously researched historical novel, culled from the exhaustive study of previously unpublished letters and diaries. Both characters and events are factual, embellished only when the demands of dramatization—largely the concoction of dialogue—must be met. Unfortunately, the dialogue is the volume’s weakest component, often so sentimental and emotionally overwrought it borders on the outright cloying. At one point, Allie learns that Elmer commands a regiment of his own: “ ‘I don’t want Elmer killed!’ Allie stated. Her voice began to crack a little. ‘He’s my friend and brother. He taught me how to fish and trap muskrats. He should be comin’ back home. I don’t want him to be hurt!’ ” The book as a whole, though, is a scholarly triumph, deftly bringing alive the volatile atmosphere of a nation in peril. Major historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Congressman Elihu Washburne appear prominently, humanizing a conflict too often interpreted as a contest of impersonal factions. But the story’s real driving force is the stark juxtaposition of youthful innocence—radiated by the self-professed “friends of the wigwam”—and the savagery of war. Huelskamp’s investigatory rigor is the principal virtue of the novel, but it also manages to be an entertaining, and tender, tale of the relentlessness of love against daunting odds.
A marvelously researched historical novel about Union soldiers and sympathizers, both moving and educational.