In this historical novel, Sharp (The Duke Don’t Dance, 2012) presents a frontier family as it recounts its history to one another on the eve of the Civil War.
Set mostly in the cellar of a homesteading house in the Platte Purchase in Missouri, the novel uses adolescent William Ebhart as a focal point for both sides of his family — the Ebharts and the Fentresses — to describe their intertwining history as they’ve moved westward after immigrating. The novel touches on land disputes, the Mexican-American War and other patches of American history. The cellar, built by William’s grandfather, Jacob, has become a place of congregation and mystery where the family swaps stories and legends, including tales of bodies buried behind its walls. Many of the novel’s main events are told in summary, typically in a monologue by one of its many characters, or later, in an epistolary format. This not only robs the scenes of urgency, it strains credulity when characters deliver lengthy, unconvincing speeches filled with historical details. For example, Frank, a war buddy of William’s father, relays a story of the Mexican-American War: “Well, in May of ’46, word reached Leavenworth that Polk finally got the Congress to declare war….Col. Doniphan was organizing a unit of Missouri volunteers that we called the First Missouri Mounted Volunteers. Sterling Price left Congress, had himself made a colonel, and began to organize another unit, the Second Missouri.” Such superfluity typifies Sharp’s eagerness to insert historical detail into the narrative with little dramatic justification. It’s unfortunate, too, because on the rare occasions when Sharp writes in fully developed scenes, the writing shines. For instance, William finds himself unintentionally hidden while his father engages in a private conversation about a past love; it’s a tense moment that underscores the need for such drama in other chapters. Sharp’s decision to make this a multigenerational story worsens its problems; William isn’t so much a protagonist as he is a receptor of information, and without a clear narrative focus, the reader is left digesting a lot of information with little emotional involvement with the characters.
An interesting story of immigrant struggle handicapped by excessive summary.