Novelist Robert Morgan focuses on the nation’s first war Rape, murder, disguise, deception the opening pages of Robert Morgan’s new novel, Brave Enemies, have all the elements of a modern-day thriller. But this gripping story actually takes place during the American Revolution, an era when neighbor suspected neighbor and the “wrong” sympathies, whether actual or perceived, could deliver your neck to a noose in short order.
Running for her life from dire circumstances at home, 16-year-old Josie Summers cuts her hair, dresses in men’s clothing and leaves behind the small world of her family farm in the Carolinas. Rushing headlong into a wider world with grave dangers, Josie eventually finds herself in the midst of the crucial Battle of Cowpens.
“I first heard about the Battle of Cowpens from my father,” Morgan says, explaining how the initial seed for the novel was planted years before it grew to fruition. “He was a great storyteller, and I was, of course, intensely interested in the Revolutionary battles fought in the South, being a North Carolina native. And this battle, one in which a smaller, less equipped force defeats a larger one, was fascinating in technical terms.” The original pages of the battle story that would evolve into Brave Enemies sat idle, tucked away for more than 10 years. “I had to put it aside,” he explains, “because even though I knew the events surrounding Cowpens, I didn’t know many of the details that would come later after much research.” Research is key for Morgan, who is known for bringing history to life in his meticulously detailed fiction. In such novels as The Hinterlands, Gap Creek (an Oprah Book Club selection) and This Rock, he has skillfully portrayed the lives of Appalachian mountain people, from 18th century pioneers to 20th century bootleggers.
BookPage interviewed Morgan by telephone from his office at Cornell University, where he has taught for 36 years. “As we speak, I can see cornfields,” he says. “But, ironically, it was here at Cornell that I became a student of my own heritage. I’ve spent many hours in the library studying Appalachia its history, dialects, religions and so forth.” First acclaimed as a poet, Morgan explains that his prose writing style is the result of studied effort. “When I went back to fiction writing about 20 years ago, I was determined that I would not write poetic prose, descriptive and static, but dynamic, dramatic, narrative prose with a plot and tension and character development,” he says. With the American Revolution as its backdrop, an anguished love story at its core and the Battle of Cowpens at its culmination, Brave Enemies is anything but static. The novel began to take shape once Morgan found the fictional narrative voices that would propel the story and give it immediacy and intimacy.
Josie’s voice came first. “I wrote two versions of Brave Enemies that were more in dialect (very much like Gap Creek) but I wasn’t satisfied,” Morgan recalls. “I wanted readers to be intimate with Josie, yet not be conscious of the language, so I decided on a plain, simple style. I wanted the language to be virtually transparent.” And it is Josie, posing as “Joseph,” who carries the story and captures our hearts as she falls in love with John Trethman, a traveling Methodist minister who takes her in. Finding herself simultaneously awakened to a new spirituality and a new sexuality, she winds up tramping through the woods as part of the North Carolina militia and ultimately fighting for her life in a battle that would be pivotal to the birth of a new nation.
The voice of John Trethman, struggling with his own human frailties while trying to minister to others, is also critical. “To my mind,” Morgan says, “the real subject of the story is the moral ambiguity of the era. It was very hard to decide what was right. Keep in mind that if you were a British subject, it was your duty to be loyal to the Crown and obey the laws of England and the teachings of the Church of England. John’s character enabled me to see and portray both sides.” Ardent in his mission to bring “hymnody and prayer and the spirit of forgiveness” to his congregations in the backcountry, and determined to remain a pacifist, John is also ultimately caught in the whirlwind of revolution. When he discovers “Joseph” is a girl, he is at once appalled at her deception and the power of his own desires. At first wracked with guilt, he eventually succumbs to the greater power of love, only to be brutally torn away from Josie and forced into serving as a minister to the British army. Camped on opposite sides, Josie and John are forced to witness the clash of loyalties that would change the course of history.
Morgan isn’t the only well-known author to tackle a fictional story with a Revolutionary setting. Former president Jimmy Carter has also written a Revolutionary War novel The Hornet’s Nest which is due for release next month. “As a matter of fact,” Morgan told us, “I just got back from Plains, Georgia, where I met with Mr. Carter to discuss his new book. Isn’t he amazing?” Morgan declares with evident admiration. “With all his diplomatic work and work for Habitat for Humanity he still found time to write a work of fiction!” His meeting with Carter led Morgan to discover that their books complement one another. “You know, America has sort of been obsessed with the Civil War. [Carter and I] both had a desire to give this incredible conflict, when the country was really born, more literary exposure, and to look at the Revolutionary War through a more Southern lens.” Moral ambiguity may have plagued the colonies but there’s no uncertainty about the drama of the era. Morgan succeeds in delivering both a riveting story of romance and a testament to the notion that in any honorable conflict, both sides can be hailed by the term “brave enemies.”