A slave girl and a young Confederate soldier experience pain and loss, in an elegantly written Civil War novel by the author of Catherwood (1996).
Unaware that it's become habit, a soldier softly sings the old nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” whenever he goes into battle. So his comrades call him Robin and are somehow cheered by the tune’s homeliness, as well as by the young man’s consistent show of quiet courage. The year is 1864, and there have been a lot of battles: many, too many, opportunities for Robin to exhibit that courage. In the meantime, back home, a smaller drama unfolds. Agate Freebody is a sensitive, intelligent slave girl savagely treated by a brute of a plantation owner. On the point of being sold, Agate gets a rare lucky break. Slave merchant Tucker Cobb, fat and feckless, leaves her untended long enough for Agate to make contact with a woman who happens to be passing by—and who happens to be Robin's mother. Aemelia and Agate have only minutes to establish a connection and contrive the plan that results in the slave’s escape. With Agate's secret cache of gold coins, Aemelia buys her, takes her home, gives her harborage and, shortly thereafter, freedom. The women become close, a process hastened, perhaps, by the recent death of Aemelia's daughter. She grieves, longs for the safe return of her only son. The bloody war continues, however, though its last act is now foreseeable. Robin is captured and shipped to the infamous prison camp in Elmira, New York: “Helmira” to the unfortunates held there. Robin's and Agate's stories run parallel, the one relentlessly bleak, the other possibly redemptive.
Thoughtful work, but Youmans’s restrained, polished, and admirably unsentimental prose distances her characters from readers yearning to be moved.