Drawing from the shadows of America's epic tragedy, the Civil War, Brown's debut novel offers a tale of endurance and love in the face of adversity.
Teenage Callum, fleeing an Irish workhouse and an American orphanage, rides as part of the Colonel's Confederate partisan troop. In Virginia's mountains, they fight for “no reason but hunger and the Colonel's orders,” with “nothing but viciousness to keep them alive.” During a raid, Callum saves Ava, age 17, from rape, but he's wounded by a fellow partisan gang member. Only later does he learn Ava was raped—by the Colonel. That spurs him to desert the gang and return to Ava's house. The Colonel pursues Callum, intent on reclaiming his magnificent horse, Reiver, which Callum stole. Reunited, Ava and Callum, weary of violence and death—a “land full of all these haunts, sorely displeased at the meager terms of their departure”—set out for Callum's distant relative on south Georgia's seacoast. Finding the Colonel dead at Ava's farm (and not knowing he was killed by a trio of outlaws, not by Callum), the gang wants revenge. Led by the Colonel's slave-hunter brother, Clayburn, they pursue. In an epic saga of endurance and sacrifice rendered in a voice wholly Southern in dialect, rhythm, and reference, the narrative follows the pair as they approach Atlanta aflame—"churning in great towers against the sky, monuments raised as if to the wrong kind of god"—and follow Sherman's March to the Sea. Ava and Callum, heroes to cheer for, live among other memorable characters, including Swinney, who once saved Callum from the shipwreck of a Cape Fear blockade runner; Lachlan the Alchemist, a near-blind moonshiner who provides temporary refuge; and a nameless old woman in a rocking chair, knitting amid fiery destruction, waiting for her only surviving son to return from war.
Like McCarthy's Border Trilogy or Frazier's Cold Mountain, this is American literature at its best, full of art and beauty and the exploration of all that is good and bad in the human spirit.