John Hood's Reviews > A Separate Country

A Separate Country by Robert Hicks
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Oct 19, 2009

it was amazing

FICTION Miami Herald

Review | A Civil War figure battles misfortune, himself in 'A Separate Country'

Battered Gen. John Bell Hood settles in New Orleans, fathers 11 children and learns from the errors of his ways.


A SEPARATE COUNTRY. Robert Hicks. Grand Central. 432 pages. $25.99

There may be more famous or heroic generals in Civil War history. But there is not a Civil War general whose life was as tragic as that of John Bell Hood, who lost the Battle of Peachtree Creek, and with it Atlanta. He lost the Battle of Franklin, and with that Nashville. He lost the use of his left arm (in the Battle of Gettysburg). And he lost his right leg (in the Battle of Chickamauga). In fact, even when Hood won, his men didn't, as in the Battle of Gaines' Mills, where every one of his officers was either killed or wounded.

In the end, of course, all the Southern generals were losers. Hood, however, seemed to make a mad art of it. Unlike most of his cohorts, he didn't lose his life. After the War, Hood scampered down to New Orleans in order to try to live as fully as possible. That's where Robert Hicks enters in his marvelous new book, which looks back on the legendary and monstrous general of the Civil War with a brand new set of eyes.

Hicks doesn't ever let us forget that this was once a man who ``cared very little for the men [he:] ruined.'' Yet at the same time, this is a work which seems designed to remember Hood neither as a legend nor a monster but as a man.

And Hood was some man, all right, a man who ``wore [his:] wounds proudly, but privately they revolted [him:].'' A man who ``didn't like to see himself,'' and who wasn't too keen on seeing ``the happy and the whole and the ignorant'' either. A man who ``flung himself at his desk to write down every slight he suffered at the hands of the graceless warrior victors and, even worse -- from his Confederates.'' A man whose war memoirs were ``composed in a rage and intended to offend and to destroy: reputations, lives, complacency.''

But by the time Hicks catches up with Hood, the fallen general has written a wholly different sort of memoir, one of family and faith and the freedom that comes with being desperately destitute. This thoroughly humbled Hood is ``a man finished with war,'' and with it, its glories and its spoils. That Hicks has to resort to fiction in order to bring this Hood to life says as much about ``the old warmonger'' as it does about the city of his resurrection and of his ruin.

After the war, ``New Orleans, very simply, was the only Southern city that still worked.'' Writes Hicks: ``Traders and fixers mingled in the red and alabaster lobby'' of the St. Louis Hotel, and ``blacklegs walked the streets like kings.'' And Hood, despite being ``a Kaintuck country cracker,'' feels right at home. Pulling up by train with $10,000 in begged moneys, he falls in among the riff-raff and the hustlers, and he falls in hard.

Hood ``reckoned [himself:] a clever man, cleverer than anyone else,'' and he chooses to get in on cotton. He knows nothing of the crop, and he hasn't a head for business. Naturally, by employing many of the same rash and brash tactics that he employed in battle, the general suffers the same fate in business as he did in war. Hood would later lose again, after inheriting General James Longstreet's insurance business. And again his loss would largely be due to his own obstinacy.

Hicks reveals a Hood made of sterner stuff than the spine and the bravado it takes to charge a battlefield. His Hood has the capacity to love. He marries and fathers 11 children and learns to see that there is great grace and glory in caring for others. He learns from the errors of his ways and oftentimes forgives the errors of those with whom he spent the last years of his life. Not always, of course -- Hicks is writing fiction, not fairy tale -- but often enough to make the story feel real.

A Separate Country is written from three perspectives: Hood, his wife Anne Marie and of a young man named Eli Griffin, who first comes to kill the general and ends up becoming his confidante and protector. Hood entrusts his secret memoir to Griffin, from whom we are best able to get some perspective. Behind the three lie a mad priest, an unscrupulous dwarf, an albino octoroon and a rabid assassin. And while these four are not the entire core of the story, each leaves a mark on the story in strange and savage aspects, much like the strange and savage tale of John Bell Hood himself, the legend, the monster, and now, the man.

John Hood is a Miami-based columnist and correspondent.
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