A fascinating, gritty and brutal story about relationships and human resilien...moreReview by John originally posted at Layers of Thought.
4.5 stars actually.
A fascinating, gritty and brutal story about relationships and human resilience set mainly during the American Civil War. Learn about some of the awful history behind Chinese immigration in America. And don’t be deceived by the cover – this is not a cutesy love story.
About: Johnny Tom is a Chinese immigrant in the US during the mid-1800s, and like most Chinese is subject to the most brutal and horrendous racial discrimination. He eventually escapes slavery and runs away with a native Indian woman, living a hard but relatively peaceful life in a hideaway settlement out in the wilds. When the Civil War breaks out, the Confederate army sweeps through and forces Johnny and other men to join up.
Detested and ill-treated by the Confederates, he manages to escape and offers his services to the Union army, fervently believing in their anti-slavery cause. Unfortunately he finds his treatment at the hands of the Federals isn’t much better than he received from the Confederates, but he is tough and determined and manages to start making a name for himself thanks to his wisdom, kindness and fierce fighting abilities. Twice he is captured by the Confederate army and manages to survive stints in their abysmal prisoner-of-war camps; he also survives several battles before finding himself lined up with the Union army at Gettysburg.
Meanwhile Era, the daughter that he had with his Indian wife, had to survive her own horrors. But she eventually goes in search of her beloved father which leads to her becoming a battlefield nurse for the Confederate army, while secretly spying on behalf of the Union. She experiences the worst butchery, both as a result of the fighting and at the hands of an ill-equipped medical system that hacks away at survivors in crude attempts to save their lives. Exhausted, horrified and depressed, she forms a bond with an amputee whom she helps recuperate, eventually falling in love with the Confederate soldier. She is now tremendously conflicted – her father and her lover fight for different sides in the war, and she is forced to secretly undermine the efforts of her lover’s army in exchange for the Federals supposedly helping her to track down her father.
As the murderous war heads towards a bloody climax, so too does her increasingly fraught relationship with her lover.
John’s thoughts: This is a powerful novel. I was somewhat misled by the book’s cover which might lead you to expect romance and chivalry; but what you get is one of the most brutal accounts of war and discrimination that I have ever read. Certainly at the book’s heart are powerful, complex and loving relationships, but the backdrop and the circumstances are truly horrific – which I have to say made for a riveting read.
The three main characters in the book are all fascinating and Davenport does a great job of fleshing out their complex personalities. Johnny Tom in particular is a wonderful person who endures his awful experiences with a wisdom and purity that shines from the pages. Era and her lover are much darker and grittier characters that are nonetheless quite believable. It’s interesting and intriguing to learn that two of the three are based on actual ancestors of Davenport. Clearly she had to create and embellish the story around them, but some of the factual foundations are true.
As I got through the book I had no idea how things were going to end up - which is a good thing. I don’t want to spoil the read for anyone so I can’t say much about the ending. Personally I wasn’t quite sure that I liked the ending, as the tale went from gritty realism to something that wasn’t quite so believable. But a few days after finishing the book I’ve come to appreciate it more.
The book was educational for me on a few fronts. For example, I hadn’t realized the depths of discrimination that Chinese immigrants faced in America; and, while I was already well aware of the brutality and mass destruction of the Civil War, I hadn’t realized quite how barbaric was the medical treatment of soldiers that survived the battles.
All in all this is a very good and highly recommended read. I’d rate it 4.5 stars. Seek it out if you like historical fiction, Civil War literature, realistic war novels or really gritty love stories. In particular, if you want to learn more about some of the sad history of Chinese immigration in America, this is a good place to start. (less)