Eighteen years ago novelist Laird Hunt read An Uncommon Soldier, a collection of letters by Sarah Wakeman, a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Civil War. Reading about “Private Lyons,” Hunt was fascinated by how fluid her persona was. “Sometimes she [signed her letters] ‘Sarah’ and sometimes she was ‘Lyons,’ ” he says. “She wasn’t afraid the letters would be censored. There was just something in the slippage in her identity that was intriguing for me.”
For Neverhome, Hunt’s sixth novel, he used Wakeman’s story—and those of many other female soldiers who fought as men—as an inspiration for Ash, the wife of an Indiana farmer who disguises herself and heads east to join the Union soldiers. Along the way, Ash’s experiences highlight differing perceptions of valor, race and gender at the time. (She quickly earns the nickname “Gallant Ash” for giving her jacket to a woman whose dress is torn—an act, it’s implied, the male soldiers wouldn’t consider.) But the heart of the novel is Ash’s voice, at once sensitive, knowing and no-nonsense.
Neverhome’s simple but archival style is evident from its first sentence: “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.” Hunt says that though he did plenty of research on the Civil War for the novel, Ash’s narration didn’t require much fuss. “The voice was so particular and arrived with such a thunderclap,” he says. “That’s what the novel started with, and in a way the rest of the novel poured out of it, with that cadence. There wasn’t a question of anything moving in on it or disturbing it, interrupting that particular voice.”
So why did it take nearly two decades after reading An Uncommon Solider for Ash’s voice to arrive? In part it’s because Hunt had a variety of other stories to pursue. His 2003 novel Indiana, Indiana, is a meditation on time written in a surrealistic style that anticipated Paul Harding’s Tinkers, while 2009’s Ray of the Star was a more digressive and experimental tale set among European street performers. But in late 2010 he came across an essay by Confederates in the Attic author Tony Horwitz, which concluded that “it’s a bottomless treasure, this Civil War, much of it encrusted in myth or still unexplored.” After that, Hunt said, “it didn’t take me very long to think about Sarah Wakeman and the many other women who did this.”
Hunt writes sensitively about a variety of character types throughout Neverhome—army officers, wounded soldiers, sexist boors, former slaves. Scenes set in an asylum reveal the casual cruelties within them; Ash’s brief refuge with a woman living alone has the mood of a furtive, secret romance. But in the same way Hunt doesn’t intend the novel to be read as a precise historical novel of the Civil War, nor does he mean it to be an allegory for contemporary discussions of war and gender.
“I was not consciously thinking about those kinds of questions,” he says. “It was all a much more intuitive approach to exploring this character and this voice and seeing the outline and some of the deeper shape of the story that she had to tell through those years. It wasn’t really until multiple drafts in that I thought about this idea of those questions. Women have only been officially allowed to be full-fledged participants in these wars they’ve fought in forever in the past few years. So there is that currency to these issues. I became aware of it, but I made every effort as much as I could not to nudge things one way or another to assert an opinion about them.”
Neverhome is Hunt’s second novel set in mid-19th century America; his 2012 novel, Kind One, is a study of slavery in antebellum Kentucky, and he says his next project is set during Reconstruction. “I am very interested in this period because it feels distant on one hand and absolutely connected to us still,” he says. “I think we’re still playing out many of these things. We see it more and more evidently with every news cycle.”
Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Kirkus Reviews and a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Phoenix.