A sprawling debut historical novel about a family that grapples with war and political tumult.
Henry Rosenberg and his wife,
Augusta, are pacifists on Christian grounds, but he still feels obligated to
join the Union Army in 1864, even though he’s old enough to avoid conscription.
Augusta loathes Abraham Lincoln almost as much as war itself and feels betrayed
by her husband’s decision. Henry eventually returns after witnessing the grisly
horror of combat. His experience haunts successive generations of his family,
as his descendants also wrestle with the moral conundrums presented by war.
Henry’s daughter, also named Augusta, has a similar rift with her husband, John
Helden, over the country’s entry into World War I. This pattern of familial
struggle continues all the way through World War II, the Vietnam War, and the
first Gulf War. Each time, the family’s ordeal microcosmically mirrors the
identity crisis of the nation as a whole, representing evolving attitudes not
only about America’s place in the world, but also about women, commerce, and
the social fabric itself. Author Heil structures the plot around war but also
includes dramatic depictions of Prohibition and the impact of socially divisive
issues, such as abortion. A finalist in the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Novel
Competition, this book is an ambitious tour de force. It attempts to do double
duty by realistically portraying individual people, as well as the nation at
large, over the course of more than a century. Unsurprisingly, the plot
meanders sometimes, and the characters get languorously lost in seemingly
interminable political debates. These disputes are occasionally cast in
tendentious tones, making one side seem hyperbolically unsympathetic. (A debate
before an audience over Roe v. Wade,
for example, depicted at great length, makes the pro-choice advocate seem
shrill and dogmatic.) Even so, the author’s success at capturing the
internecine conflict in generations of one expanding family, without reducing
them to abstract symbols of larger political referents, is remarkable. Overall,
this is a powerful, moving tale, reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s East of
Eden in its scope and artistic aspiration.
A stirring homage to, and critique of, an
ever changing United States.