The political, social, technological and environmental repercussions of the American Civil War are still felt today. Two excellent new novels join the canon of Civil War fiction, highlighting this crucial period from different perspectives: one from a community of emancipated slaves, the other from a former Confederate soldier roaming the Texas landscape.
★ Conjure Women
In her stunning debut novel, Conjure Women, Afia Atakora explores life during the Reconstruction era for a community of formerly enslaved people living amid the ruins of their old plantation. Rue, a young woman versed in healing, midwifery and crafting curses—skills learned from her hoodoo-practicing mother, Miss May Belle—assists at the birth of a strange, pale baby born in a black caul and with black eyes. When a devastating illness begins rapidly killing the community’s children while the pale child remains seemingly unaffected, the superstitious community, recently “saved” by a charismatic traveling preacher, begins to turn against Rue and the child.
As chapters toggle between life on the plantation before and after the war, Atakora slowly reveals the complex web of stories tying Rue, May Belle and the plantation owner’s strong-willed daughter, Varina, together. Atakora, a Pushcart Prize nominee who earned her MFA from Columbia University, relies on first-person accounts, diaries and autobiographies from the period to inform her writing, to great effect. The community’s characters and the harsh realities of the black experience before and during Reconstruction come vividly to life. At the same time, Atakora paces her novel beautifully, slowly unwinding the plot in unexpected ways as she examines a relatively unexplored aspect of American history.
Simon the Fiddler
In Simon the Fiddler, bestselling author Paulette Jiles, whose novel News of the World was a National Book Award finalist, begins with a premise that seems impossibly far-fetched: A penniless young man finds love at first sight with a woman who is essentially a prisoner of her employer, just as she is about to leave for a distant town in a wild landscape. But Jiles makes the impossible plausible.
Twenty-three-year-old fiddler Simon Boudlin avoids conscription into the Confederate Army until the last days of the war. After one of the war’s final battles, Simon becomes part of a group of Union and Confederate musicians brought in to provide music for an event to celebrate the Confederacy’s impending surrender. While playing, Simon sees the beautiful Doris Dillon, an indentured Irish governess to the daughter of a dangerous Union colonel. After speaking only a few words to her, Simon is completely smitten, but he and Doris must unfortunately go their separate ways.
Despite owning nothing but his talent and a Markneukirchen violin, Simon decides he will marry Doris and purchase land for them to settle. Without a plan but with his goal firmly in mind, Simon sets forth with a ragtag band of musicians through Texas, which is still transitioning from the war. Simon overcomes hardships and danger to make steady progress toward his dream, but when he reaches San Antonio, where Doris lives with the colonel and his family, he faces his most difficult trial: rescuing Doris from the menacing colonel in a state still under military law.
In this enthralling novel, Jiles pairs the hard-luck terrain of her Texas setting with a succinct, unadorned writing style. Simon the Fiddler not only entertains but also brings a fascinating period in Texas history to life.