An enigmatic parable is grafted onto an impressively detailed retelling of the ordeals endured by William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, in a London-based Civil War buff’s unusual first novel.
The year is 1862, and Sherman’s division is poised to fight the bloody Battle of Shiloh when the gruff Union general encounters a young boy hiding in the woods, who answers to the name Jesse Davis, and rather portentously declares, “I came to serve you.” Jesse immediately becomes a godsend to Sherman’s exhausted troops, mastering nursing skills, writing letters for the men and reading to them, comforting the wounded and dying, speaking in “a voice that was neither feminine nor masculine but something in between, which could lift the lowest of spirits and transport the most downhearted, to a place of optimism and light.” Who and what Jesse really is may surprise the surgeons and officers who discover the ministering angel’s secret, but it won’t surprise many readers. Nevertheless, whenever Gylanders concentrates on military actions and behind-the-lines daily routines—whether tracking the vacillations of Sherman’s formidable intellect and fiery temper, detailing strategies planned and shared with U.S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac or charting the southward course that will lead Sherman toward Atlanta and near-Armageddon—the narrative becomes both absorbing and thoroughly convincing. It’s Gylanders’s bad luck that this novel will inevitably be compared with E.L. Doctorow’s very recent (and much superior) The March. But bad luck can’t be blamed for the numbingly banal iterations of both historical facts and genre clichés (e.g., “Whoring and boozing had been as much a part of the soldier’s life as marching and fighting since Roman times”). And the flagrantly symbolic figure of Jesse is much more a distraction than a crucial story element.
There’s a decent novel somewhere in here, but it’s obscured and trivialized by sentimental religiosity.