Reliance, Illinois
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The Reconstruction and Postbellum Fiction

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Mary | 33 comments Reconstruction serves as the broad historical backdrop for my second novel, Reliance, Illinois. I became fascinated by the post-Civil War years, particularly the 1870’s, a tumultuous time all but ignored by fiction writers who, though reasonably drawn to the spectacle of war, too often overlook the ongoing drama of war’s aftermath. What happened to towns divided by war after the armed conflict stopped? How did hundreds of thousands of widows and children (with little to no political or economic autonomy) survive? What happened when women, thrust by necessity into positions of power and influence, were forced to return to positions of subservience? What happened when some of them refused to go?

A number of excellent books consider the experience of prominent men on the national stage at this time. I couldn’t find many that considered the experience of women and children (if you know of others, let me know). This one of the reasons I persevered in the writing of this book. I loved the story of Maddy, Rebecca, Miss Rose and company, but until I understood the larger context of the story I wasn’t sure if it deserved an audience. There’s so many good books out there, so many talented authors. I wanted to make sure I was writing a new and necessary story. Otherwise, why bother with the time and effort, the doubt and uncertainty?

As an author, I have little control over the fate of a book once it’s out in the world. The only thing I can control is the heart and effort that goes into crafting a story worth reading.

To read my essay “The Tourist, The Expat and the Native: A Traveler’s Guide to Crafting Historical Fiction,” click one of the two links below.

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod

Thank you for these excellent references! My current work-in-progress is set the year after the Civil War ended, and soldiers are still making their way home (travel was slow back then!). I will certainly be reading these essays.

Do you think that, culturally speaking, we try very hard to "move on quickly" after a war — maybe even try to forget it, and all the devastation? It does seem as though writers don't focus much on the 1870s.

By the way, the heart and effort that went into this Reliance, Illinois is (to me, obviously) tremendous. It's a big story, carefully told.

Mary | 33 comments Martha wrote: "Mary,

Thank you for these excellent references! My current work-in-progress is set the year after the Civil War ended, and soldiers are still making their way home (travel was slow back then!). I ..."

Thank you for the kind words, Martha! And let's chat sometime about your book. It sounds fascinating. So often the home that a soldier returns to after a civil war is as changed and ravaged as the soldier. There is really no going home, for by home they mean a place in time, a remembered and often idealized place.

I think this unexpected loss of "home" is the source of a lot of post war paralysis and explains, too, the habit (it happened after WWII as well) of insisting on a return to "traditional values," that were never before so defined. Instead of return (which is impossible) we codify and restrict the behavior and agency of women and anyone else who gained agency during the war and might further upset the social order. So the war ends and segregation begins. The war ends and contraception is outlawed. The war ends and Prozac generation begins.

It's natural, I think, to try and forget and to move one. But grief unacknowledged, is a cancer, as is guilt unatoned. We have never come to terms with the Civil War, its causes, its cost.

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