The Civil War, a budding romance, snippets of Walt Whitman—none of these does very much to elevate this flat first novel of two cousins during the War Between the States.
It’s 1859, and Isabel Lindsey, 12, worships her older cousin Laurence, so when he insists she help a runaway slave they stumble upon, she hesitantly agrees. Though it’s a free state, some Vermonters, including the prominent Lindsey family, return runaway slaves to their owners. The fate of the poor slave the two are unable to help spurs Laurence to join the Union Army a couple of years later to fight for justice. The hardships of war, the camaraderie of (and sometimes conflicts between) the soldiers, the change from Laurence the boy to Laurence the world-weary man in just a few short years—all these are well-detailed yet not especially original ways to approach this oft-written-about American tragedy. Though largely concerning itself with Laurence and his experiences on the battlefield, the story occasionally shifts back to Bel at home in Vermont, and the speedy romance that has developed between her and her French tutor, Louis. Inspired by Bel’s convictions, Canadian Louis decides also to fight for the North and soon finds himself face-to-face with Laurence, who, in his exhaustion, has decided that he’s in love with Bel, too. That, and a somewhat pointless subplot involving a romance between Bel’s mother and Laurence’s father (perhaps unrequited), gives respite from the war at the front. The graphic finale, when Laurence and Louis barely survive the devastating Battle of the Wilderness, has Bel in a Washington hospital nursing an unrecognizably deformed Laurence and stealing kisses with Louis. Solid language, likable characters, steady enough plot—and yet the story never seems to take off, stuck as it is in material that’s been picked over with a fine-toothed comb.
Another for Civil War buffs or history junkies. Others can pass.