“The Yankee Widow” by Linda Lael Miller takes place during the Civil War and takes readers right through the Battle of Gettysburg in all its horror and death. Caroline Hammond, the main character, becomes a widow at the start of the story when her husband, young Jacob, dies after becoming grievously injured at the Battle of Chancellorsville. She travels to Washington City, as it was known then, and finds him at the point of death.
Returning home with his coffin, Caroline prepares to continue to work their farm to provide for herself, her daughter Rachel, and their worker Enoch. Many of the chapters are told from the viewpoints of the different characters. Enoch, a former slave who was purchased by Jacob’s father when he walked by a slave auction on a visit south, was set free after he worked off his purchase price. He continued to work for the family and saved his earnings. He is treated as an equal and sits at dinner with them. Through his remembrances, the reader learns about his history and comes to understand why he is so loyal to Caroline and the Hammond family.
Caroline’s mother, Geneva, married a doctor, and they raised Caroline when Caroline’s parents and sister died. Readers learn about her and about Jubie, an escaped slave, when they tell the story from their points of view. The reader meets Bridger Winslow at the same time Jacob does, at the Battle of Chancellorsville when Jacob is dying.
But the reader really learns about Bridger Winslow and his best friend, Rogan McBride, in later chapters. These friends, like brothers, are from opposite social strata, one abandoned as a child in the North and the other the scion of a wealthy plantation-owning family, raised with all the gentility of a Southern gentleman. They are fighting on opposite sides of the war. The reader learns about these two noble men from their words and, even more, from their actions.
And there is Caroline Hammond, a strong woman who loses her young husband. She must bear the responsibility of the Hammond family farm and care for her young daughter when there is a war raging at her doorstep. The reader comes to respect and appreciate Caroline, as most of the story is told from her point of view. It’s an admirable one. Caroline is everything a woman should be — kind, compassionate, and yet strong and intelligent. But she has a secret that worries her about her marriage to Jacob, and it’s a secret that makes her feel guilty.
But the most exemplary star of the story is Miller’s beautiful writing, her musings on the nature of war, the nature of man, and the strength of women. On the Hammond farm, after the Battle of Gettysburg, among the wounded and dying, she writes, “The screams and moans were a constant, inescapable part of war, a reminder that, in this supposedly glorious game of kings and knights, it was the pawns who shed the most blood.”
While there undoubtedly were noble acts aplenty during this war fought between Americans, Miller portrays acts of bravery and acts of compassion that will bring the reader to tears. The dying request of McBride’s fellow soldier, a youngster, which McBride fulfills, will warm the heart of even the least compassionate reader.
This beautifully written novel has several stories contained within its pages. There is the story of Caroline as a mother and widow. There is the story of Enoch and his life and the story of the two men who fall in love with Caroline. Each story is carefully painted within the frame of the horror and violence of the most deadly war in American history. Miller’s extensive research and knowledge of the time period and the war show on every page. But it’s the emotion and the touching stories that Miller shares that will pull at readers’ heartstrings. Readers will feel the anguish of the characters and fear for their safety and will come to realize that they’re all, in fact, heroes. It’s not a thriller at all, yet readers will be on the edge of their seats until they find out how it all ends.
This would be a fabulous choice for a book club.
Originally posted on Bookreporter.com.