Published September 9, 2014
243 pages (hardcover)
A typical Civil War Union solider in fatigue uniform looked like this: sky-blue trousers tucked into ankle-high shoes (called brogans), a sky-blue greatcoat with a standing collar and French cuffs, a dark-blue sack coat, and a forage cap with a floppy crown. He carried a musket with a bayonet, a knapsack, and a haversack and mucket.
Take a gander at Private Albert D. Cashier, the smallest soldier in the 95th Illinois Infantry:
Typical, right? Not quite.
Private Cashier fought in over forty battles, serving a full three-year enlistment . . . and happens to be one of over 400 documented cases of female soldiers who disguised themselves as men in order to enlist as soldiers and fight in the Civil War. Cashier was born Jennie Hodgers in 1843. Upon Cashier’s return home from the war, he continued to live as a man, working as a farmhand, janitor, and cemetery worker. His secret was not revealed until 1910, when he was hit by a car and taken to the hospital for treatment of a broken leg. You can read more about Hodgers’s/Cashier’s story (and the stories of other female Civil War soldiers) here.
Neverhome is a novel about a soldier like Private Cashier. Constance is a woman who joins the Union Army under the name Ash Thompson, leaving her husband, Bartholomew, home to tend the farm (“I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.”).
Her secret is, for the most part, safely kept, and she quickly makes a name for herself (“Gallant Ash,” about whom tales are told and songs are sung) for her bravery and chivalry. In the years she spends away from Bartholomew and the farm, she meets good guys and bad guys. She experiences battle, capture, and imprisonment in a lunatic asylum. When she finally returns to Indiana, she is not the person she was when she left, and home, as she remembers it, is no longer the same.
The subject matter is definitely intriguing, but the execution is lacking. The book reads like Constance’s journal entries. It is told in first person with a distinctive voice (keep in mind: this is the 1800’s; today’s grammar and punctuation do not apply). There are hints that Constance may not be the most reliable narrator; she is fashioning her account to make her appear in the best light possible. But it’s hard to root completely for a person you feel isn’t being entirely forthright.
The short chapters are filled with anecdotes and memories that are told in a “and then this happened . . . and then this happened . . . and then this happened” fashion. When the action is exciting, this makes for quick reading:
We made our line and cut them down with our muskets and I saw our cannon take off half a handsome white gelding’s head. They did not stop though and got close enough for swords and hooves and pistol work. You ever try to fight a man on a horse? Man with a weapon in his hand? Man come up from Natchez with the demon horse he was born on and hungry for blood? A boy not five feet away from me got made into jelly by a piebald mare with red eyes. Another got his head cracked right open with a pistol butt. I took a saber point across my arm and might have met my glory but a ball came out of nowhere took my ravisher off to his own. It was reinforcements. Four hundred walking blues to fight the one hundred horsemen. Only the grays had infantry of their own. I got a first lieutenant died five minutes later to tie a shirtsleeve tight around my would. When it was snug, I loaded my musket and went back for more.
But when things are slower (marching, meeting people along the road, thinking about Bartholomew and her deceased mother), it is ridiculously slow-going and tedious.
- a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice book
- an Indie Next List pick for September 2014
Who should read it: Joe (fans of historical/war fiction who enjoy stylized writing).
Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:
- Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson (an Indie Next List pick for February 2015)