A sprawling, multilayered tale: Deep, deep under the surface of Union and Confederate ideology teem the Appalachian folk for whom “the wrong side was to take a side” in the War Between the States.
Ever since Appomattox, a company of spectral soldiers has ridden the woods, inviting the few people who can see them to join their ranks. As an encampment of Civil War re-enactors gathers in the Tennessee hills and Wake County Sheriff Spencer Arrowood seeks information on the ancestor who was the very last casualty of the war, McCrumb, in the prismatic manner of her Ballad series (The Songcatcher, 2001, etc.), brings alive a time in which nearly every family had relatives fighting on both Union and Confederate sides and peoples it with figures drawn from history. When Keith Blalock, a Union sympathizer surrounded by secessionists, is drafted into the Confederate army, he’s followed by his wife Malinda, who disguises herself as a boy to watch over him until he sneaks off to become a pilot for strangers fleeing north—and an avenging fugitive from his neighbors and the law. At the other end of the scale, not even the best-connected citizens feel masters of the war’s political realities. Zebulon Vance, a Smokey Mountain Gatsby, rises to the state legislature and the US Congress before the war raises him to military command and then strands him in the North Carolina governor’s mansion, where his ritual promises to do the best he can for myriad petitioners ring hollow even in his own ears. McCrumb counterpoints these stories of the personal side of war with the contemporary confusion of the re-enactors and the story of Tom Gentry, who’s come to the mountains to die.
Unlike McCrumb’s Ballad tales, which dramatized the convergence of multiple generations, this patchwork daringly leaves each story suspended, linked only by the inconclusive verdicts of history and the rush of ghost riders bound for glory.