In Espenscheid’s (The Jackass Alliance, 2012) latest novel, a 19-year-old girl takes her brother’s place at the Civil War Battle of Shiloh, and her present-day descendant uses the story to heal her post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 1862, when Iowa farm girl Emma Mackenzie’s brother Josef deserts the Union Army, she steps in to replace him. Her tomboy habits and sharpshooting skill allow her to maintain her male disguise as the army marches south. In 2006, U.S. soldier Rita Ambridge convalesces in the hospital, angry after losing her leg in the Iraq War. Her grandmother gives her a packet of Emma’s Civil War letters and journals, and Rita, through the words of her soldier ancestor, begins to heal her own emotional scars. Emma’s story returns to center stage, and before long much of the army learns her secret—as does Elijah Robet, a Confederate soldier who meets her and falls under her spell. Emma’s commanding officer tries to keep her away from the fighting, but she ends up in the middle of the horrific Battle of Shiloh, holding her own as she sees one friend killed after another. When the Confederates take her prisoner, Robet helps her escape, and the two fall in love before they are forced to separate. Emma goes on to work in Union hospitals until she’s overwhelmed by the carnage and returns to Iowa—and her dreams of Robet. While the book’s main characters are fictional, Civil War notables such as Ulysses S. Grant, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Albert Sidney Johnston also appear. The fast-paced novel is part war story, with detailed battle scenes, and part historical romance, and it successfully weaves these two very different aspects together. The intriguing narrative, however, is hampered by unpolished prose, particularly in its overly folksy dialogue. Educated characters have a distracting inability to conjugate their verbs (“We be all on the same side here”), and phonetic spelling overwhelms one German character’s contributions (“In battle zey vill cower und run. In zuh lines, zis produce gaps, ja”).
An often engaging war tale that struggles with awkward execution.