Well-researched and entertaining.

BATTLE OF THE CRATER

Putative presidential hopeful, political lightning rod and prolific author Gingrich (Gettysburg, 2003, etc.) novelizes a little-known Civil War battle.

Joined by Forstchen, Gingrich deconstructs an 1864 Union effort that could have ended the war. The Battle of the Crater occurred after Grant maneuvered away from a bloody stalemate at Cold Harbor to attack near Petersburg, Va. Grant wanted to seize Richmond, the linchpin of the Confederacy. Jerusalem Plank Road, “the aorta of Bobbie Lee,” linked the two cities. However, Grant’s probe soon descended into trench warfare, with Confederate lines anchored by Pegram’s Battery. The 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, led by Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, volunteers from coal-mining country, realized the fortification was only a few hundred feet from their own lines. The miners believed they could tunnel under no-man’s land until they were beneath the fortification, and then plant enough explosives to blast a hole in the defenses. The daring plan was put in place, although few of the brass believed it would work or offered material support. Pleasants, Burnside, Meade and other officers are well-known figures, but other historical people appear, including Garland White, once a slave to Senator Toombs of Georgia, but then serving as sergeant major of the 28th Colored Infantry. A fictional illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, James Reilly, nourished as a homeless young man by an attorney named Abraham Lincoln, is the now-President Lincoln’s secret eye on the battlefield. His character ties the narrative together. The fractured relationship between Burnside and his superior, Meade, which may have doomed the unorthodox plan, is dissected. The authors also provide insight into the treatment of African-American troops, superbly trained to lead the drive through the breech but relegated to the reserves by prejudice. Reilly’s fictional perspective is gained by hindsight, and there’s a disconcerting random switching from first to surnames, but overall, the action-filled narrative is easily followed through the planning, the battle and the inquiries that followed.

Well-researched and entertaining.

Pub Date: Nov. 8, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-312-60710-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Sept. 27, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2011

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A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

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THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK

One of Kentucky’s last living “Blue People” works as a traveling librarian in 1930s Appalachia.

Cussy Mary Carter is a 19-year-old from Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. She was born with a rare genetic condition, and her skin has always been tinged an allover deep blue. Cussy lives with her widowed father, a coal miner who relentlessly attempts to marry her off. Unfortunately, with blue skin and questionable genetics, Cussy is a tough sell. Cussy would rather keep her job as a pack-horse librarian than keep house for a husband anyway. As part of the new governmental program aimed at bringing reading material to isolated rural Kentuckians, Cussy rides a mule over treacherous terrain, delivering books and periodicals to people of limited means. Cussy’s patrons refer to her as “Bluet” or “Book Woman,” and she delights in bringing them books as well as messages, medicine, and advice. When a local pastor takes a nefarious interest in Cussy, claiming that God has sent him to rid society of her “blue demons,” efforts to defend herself leave Cussy at risk of arrest, or worse. The local doctor agrees to protect Cussy in exchange for her submission to medical testing. As Doc finds answers about Cussy’s condition, she begins to re-examine what it means to be a Blue and what life after a cure might look like. Although the novel gets off to a slow start, once Cussy begins traveling to the city for medical testing, the stakes get higher, as does the suspense of the story. Cussy's first-person narrative voice is engaging, laced with a thick Kentucky accent and colloquialisms of Depression-era Appalachia. Through the bigotry and discrimination Cussy suffers as a result of her skin color, the author artfully depicts the insidious behavior that can result when a society’s members feel threatened by things they don't understand. With a focus on the personal joy and broadened horizons that can result from access to reading material, this well-researched tale serves as a solid history lesson on 1930s Kentucky.

A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4926-7152-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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