Five American Civil War survivors connect onboard the ill-fated steamer Sultana in Hendricks’ (Senator Hattie Caraway, 2013) historical novel.
In late 1864, John Deacon abandons his failing newspaper business to join the Union Army. He’s in love with the married Ella, whose husband is in an Army hospital in Vicksburg, Mississippi. While in the Army, Deacon meets Moran, an unsuccessful thief hiding from the law. Meanwhile, Charity Boudry, a teenage prostitute in New Orleans, desperately tries to escape her life of servitude, and Alpha, a Confederate agent, prepares an act of sabotage in New York City. Deacon and Moran enter combat; Ella sets out on the road to Vicksburg; and Charity moves from one squalid town to another to avoid recapture. Alpha fails in New York and retreats to the South. As the weeks pass, their paths all converge in Vicksburg and on the riverboat Sultana. Bushwhackers, prisoner-of-war camps, rapists, thieves, and death line the way, but kindness also appears in strange places. In real life, the explosion of the Sultana in April 1865 was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history; nearly 2,000 people perished. Most were soldiers and former prisoners of war returning home. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln overshadowed this great tragedy, which was quickly consigned to the past. Hendricks seeks to correct this lapse, and to that end, she’s written an often riveting novel. Her solid research enables her to evoke the atmosphere of the times, from the mundane to the horrible. The story’s characters, particularly the women, are well-drawn, and the dialogue is true to life. She also effectively brings out the struggles of minor characters, such as a Jewish peddler named Stieglitz. There are a few missteps, though: the foreshadowing at the end of a few chapters is unnecessary, and the ominous Alpha comes across at times like a cartoon villain. Occasionally, the narrative is a little overloaded with background information, which slows the pace, and the contrived epilogue also seems extraneous.
An often vivid, heartbreaking story full of great historical detail and human pathos.