This lean Civil War sequel packs in more history and raw emotion than a 600-page epic.
Novelist Smith (Home Again, 2014) continues the story of Zach Harkin, a Union sharpshooter who was traumatized when he killed Confederate sharpshooter Jack Kavandish. This left Zach unfit for service; he was mustered out but resolved to find Jack’s widow and return his journal to her, along with her picture that Jack carried. An older Zach tells the story to Chris Martin, an enterprising young reporter from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World who shows up in Zach’s Knoxville, Tennessee, gun shop in 1908. In the fall of 1863, Zach slipped away from home to pursue his quest, do or die. Confederate sorties (Tennessee was a border state) were one danger, but Union soldiers, who assume he’s a deserter, could be just as bad. After more than one close scrape, he wound up in Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison in Georgia. We meet its notorious commandant, Henri Wirz, who was later hanged for war crimes. Zach-as-father-figure becomes a recurring motif: first, at Andersonville, he became the protector of young Beau Andrews, a bugle boy from Michigan; later, he became a real father to Kavandish’s son, Tom. With Wirz’s unwitting help, he did escape Andersonville. Then he was in the Deep South, which was more and more a lawless place, as he worked to find Jack’s farm; Gen. Sherman’s forces were coming through, and the “Home Guards,” as portrayed here, were little more than plunderers and rapists. Smith writes wonderfully and realistically, and one can hear the pacing and menace: “[Zach] could see the men’s eyes were wild, almost glazed over from drink. They sat heavy on their saddles, their heads not moving in unison with the horses’ movements. Zach braced for the worst.” Smith also knows as much about the guns of the era as a professional gunsmith and restorer. Readers will find themselves wincing and full of outrage at several turns of the plot; readers will hope—even assume—that the most sympathetic characters, whom they’ve come to love, will somehow manage to survive, but Smith often dashes such hope. One subplot, involving Martin standing up to the dictatorial Pulitzer, is either a bonus or a distraction, depending on the reader’s taste.
Smith knows the Civil War in his bones, and his novel will leave readers emotionally drained but grateful.