A Confederate spy becomes caught between duty and love in this Civil War drama.
In 1863, Judson Walker, a Confederate captain and a member of the infamous Morgan’s Raiders, is sent to Furnass, Pennsylvania—deep in enemy territory—on a sensitive mission disguised as a Union officer. Jonathan Reid, an engineer, accompanies him. The two are tasked with determining if the road engines invented by Colin Lyle could be modified to make Gatling guns even deadlier, a technological innovation that could sway the outcome of the war. Walker does his best to keep up the ruse that he’s a Union soldier despite his Southern accent, since “if someone exposed him right now as a Southern spy,” there were people who “would probably run from their houses and beat him to death, tear him limb from limb for being a traitor.” Walker frets anxiously that Libby, Colin’s wife, suspects him—she too is a Southerner, originally from South Carolina, and quickly detects his accent—but he also begins to have irrepressible feelings for her that could compromise his operation. Meanwhile, Reid observes Walker’s growing attachment to Libby and is confronted with the possibility that he’ll have to take matters into his own hands. Snodgrass (All Fall Down, 2018, etc.) sensitively investigates the ways in which the lines between the North and South could be hazily drawn—Walker realizes that “by some definitions he was a Northerner himself.” Reid loathes Walker for his incarnate representation of everything wrong with the South, “the backwoods mentality, the backwater view of the world.”
The author’s meticulous, measured prose is well-suited to his principal literary task: the depiction of ambiguity that resides in the interstices between heavy-handed extremisms. Walker is a grippingly complex character. An educated man—he’s a lawyer—he’s willing to risk his life for the South, but he’s hardly an ideological partisan. And Colin, too, is more layered than he at first seems—a scientific fanatic, he’s so committed to his invention he’s either incapable or unwilling to notice the electricity between Libby and Walker. But despite Colin’s professional commitments, he’s not coldly rational either: “Maybe that’s why I find machines easier to deal with than people. When a machine doesn’t do what you want it to, you simply make a new gear or whatever. Maybe someday we’ll be able to make one for the human heart.” Snodgrass artfully infuses the plot with tantalizing suspense that feels like a cord pulled taut that could break at any moment. This is not a formulaic rendering of the distance between the personal and the obligatory but something deeper and more profound. Walker’s burgeoning love for Libby compels him to re-evaluate the very nature of his obligations, as if his feelings produced a new clarity. The author’s impressive achievement is to upend the simplistic interpretation of the Civil War: two sides warring against each other out of perfectly confident and implacable hate.
A thoughtful and powerfully written war novel.