A coming-of-age story is merged with a Civil War tale in Taylor’s debut novel.
Narrator John Naro, of Lynchburg, Va., turns 16 the day in 1861 that his state secedes from the Union. The town rejoices but his father’s reaction is muted, even though his wool mill benefits from new orders, necessitating the purchase of more slaves. The reality of the war hits home when cousin Sam returns, having lost a leg at Manassas. The following year John’s father allows him to leave for Charlottesville, to become a medical student at the University of Virginia (the author’s alma mater); it’s here that John’s story really starts. The war soon forces him to move from the classroom to the adjacent hospital, where he accompanies his professor, Dr. Cabell, on rounds, gaining priceless hands-on experience; his limited spare time he spends courting Lorrie, Cabell’s beautiful but prickly niece. Taylor wears the past as comfortably as an old shoe, and the credibility of John’s hospital experience is the novel’s greatest strength; however, this tight focus sometimes seems like tunnel vision. It’s not as though life back in Lynchburg lacks for drama. On a visit home, John finds Sam, now running the mill, has freed all the slaves, to the dismay of their picketing neighbors. Yet his family, falling apart as bankruptcy looms, gets less attention from the author than a Christmas dinner Lorrie prepares for the hospital, or her elite social circle. While John labors selflessly in the wards, his rejection of his now invisible family becomes ice-cold and total. He replaces them with a surrogate father, a lieutenant from the North whose life he saved, and Lorrie, who he marries in 1864. The surrender of the university, quietly negotiated by the faculty chairman, counts for less than John’s marital problems. His desperate attempt to end those problems leads to a melodramatic turnaround.
Misplaced emphases and a somewhat sanctimonious lead weaken an otherwise robust debut.