Just when you thought historical novelists might have exhausted every Civil War lode, along comes a fresh look at the covert struggle for hearts and minds in 1862’s Maryland.
It was a state on the edge of “secesh,” or secession, a Yankee brain with a Johnny Reb heart, some said. Two stunning defeats at Bull Run had done nothing to bolster the Union’s tenuous hold, and Captain Branden Rolfe, assistant provost marshal (“a man who’d come to know the world better than he ever wanted to”), understood, bleakly, the unstable nature of the status quo. Support for clandestine rebel groups like the Sons of Liberty was mounting. Rolfe’s charge: find them, penetrate them and jail or kill their leaders. Among these is Langdon Everett. Quintessential Southern aristocrat, Everett is unshakably convinced that “plantationism” represents a way of life without which the South would face not merely financial ruin but the loss of its moral compass. What would feckless darkies do when no longer protected by benevolent masters? How could honor permit the shirking of “the white man’s burden?” Actually, it’s a clash between moral and political near-absolutes: Captain Rolfe is equally convinced that slavery is the Great Unpardonable, calamitous to the individual, catastrophic to the idea of a republic. Philosophy aside, guns are being smuggled into Maryland. Get enough of them into the hands of the Sons of Liberty, and Everett could see the kind of insurrection that would topple the government and send the damn Yankees scurrying north. Among those Marylanders most convinced of his own rightness is the assistant provost marshal, who will use everything he can, every weapon at his disposal—including the woman he adores—to keep Everett and the guns from connecting.
Jakober (Only Call us Faithful, 2003, etc.) has pulled off a rare combination here: the well-plotted thriller that’s also an intelligent, engrossing novel of ideas.