Some of the best books find their author instead of the other way around. It's as if certain stories, so compelling and brimming with appeal, lie in wait for a writer with the proper voice, temperament and personal experience to come along and bring them to life. Think Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Or Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie. Add to these Robert Hicks' The Widow of the South, a Civil War page-turner that comes out of left field from a Nashville music publisher who couldn't say no to the truth.
The Widow of the South is a fictional account of a real-life figure: Carrie McGavock, whose Tennessee home at Carnton Plantation was commandeered into a field hospital during the bloody Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, that left 9,000 dead, 7,000 of them Confederate soldiers. McGavock became an angel of mercy for the wounded that day, but it was only the beginning of her extraordinary tale.
Two years later, when a neighbor prepared to plow up a field that contained the remains of 1,500 Confederate soldiers, an outraged McGavock and her husband John dug up the bodies and re-interred them in their backyard, creating the only privately owned Confederate cemetery. Carrie carefully arranged and recorded the name and regiment of each soldier in her book of the dead, and walked daily among her memories. She was well known as the Widow of the South until her death in 1905, but largely forgotten afterward.
The McGavock family moved on, and the subsequent owners eventually deeded the dilapidated house and cemetery to the Daughters of the Confederacy. The Carnton estate likely would have remained a little-known footnote in Civil War history, had its aging directors not coaxed Hicks, a Franklin resident, into serving on their board in 1987.
"I had to dress in a coat and tie and sit in these board meetings where they talked about buying staples for the stapler or if the director could possibly do what their mama did and fold the corner of the paper over and tear it," Hicks recalls. "But I was falling in love with the place."
Though he didn't know it at the time, Hicks was uniquely qualified to be the unlikely caretaker-designate of Carrie McGavock's strange garden. A son of the South, he spent summers in nearby Hicksville, now an incorporated suburb of Jackson, Tennessee, that bore the family name. His father, who at 46 reinvented himself and went from rags to riches as a cofounder of the Culligan company, used to drive Robert and his brother on road trips through Dixie just to catalog all the towns whose welcome sign included the watchwords, Where the Old South Lives. En route, he would recall similar drives with his own father, who experienced the Civil War as a boy.
"My grandfather would describe fields with all their layering of history," Hicks says. "Yes, this is a cotton field right now, but this is actually where Grant's army came across on their way to Shiloh. He could remember when the Union army came to the house and took all the horses including his pony, and he came out with a little penknife to try to saw the rope off his pony. The union officer gave him back his pony."
Following college in Nashville, Hicks did graduate study in philosophy in Lausanne, Switzerland. Upon his return to Music City, a friend advised him over beers to consider music publishing. "I said, really? What do they do? And he said, I don't know but I think you'd be good at it." He was. In fact, he was already a big fan of country music, a rarity among young people in the late '70s, even in Nashville. He remembers the night in the alley behind the Ryman Auditorium when he found his calling.
"It was Lynn Anderson who made me fall in love with country music. She was there in the alley, beating the tar out of her husband Glenn, and he was beating her back. I think infidelity was one of the themes. And this kid sticks his head out the back door and says, Miss Anderson, you're on in five minutes. And they both stopped, she turned to Glenn and said, help me with my makeup, and 15 minutes later she was on the stage singing 'I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.' I said, you know what? I like these people."
The more Hicks learned about Carrie McGavock, the more he wanted to help lift Carnton out of the waste bin of history. He brought in top experts on period paint, furniture plans, wallpaper and mid-19th-century gardening to restore the home to its glory. By 1996, it dawned on him that all the work would be in vain without an endowment to sustain the home. He had already put what little he knew of McGavock's life into a pamphlet. To share her story with the world would take filling in the blanks with a novel. Hicks limbered up to write The Widow of the South not with Faulkner, but with Pasternak and Tolstoy.
"My first step was to read every Russian novel. It seemed like Russian novels were always about the people Dr. Zhivago, War and Peace. It was always about how these people were tossed about," he says. "What I strive for is about transformation: how people are transformed by each other, by circumstances, by loss or gain." If early buzz pans out, The Widow of the South could do for Carnton what Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did for Savannah. However it fares, Hicks believes the story of Carrie McGavock will live on.
"I am a Southerner and there is always that sense of responsibility," Hicks says. "I don't know if I was destined to do this book but I think that somebody was destined to do it."
Jay MacDonald is a writer in Oxford, Mississippi.