According to www.civilwar.org, an estimated 400 to 750 women disguised themselves as men and fought as both Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War. Neverhome tells the story of one of them. When war breaks out, Constance Thompson decides to don a Union uniform, leave her husband and their farm, and enlist as Ash Thompson.
Soon, Ash distinguishes himself as a skilled tracker and sharpshooter and earns the respect of his fellow soldiers. He fights in some horrific battles, and the aftermath of the fighting is described in terrible detail: large parts of the countryside are covered by the wounded and dead. Eventually, Ash is captured and revealed as a woman. She is condemned as a traitor and locked away in an insane asylum. She suffers physically and mentally, but eventually, she is able to escape and return home, although the heartbreak doesn’t stop when she is reunited with her husband.
It took me some time to get used to the style of this book; it is a first-person narrative told by Ash/Constance. But once I got into it, it was easy to hear the distinctive voice, even if the events she talks about are not easy to bear. It was interesting to read about how she could keep her gender a secret. (Lucky for her, there were enough fresh-faced young men around so that nobody noticed that Ash didn’t need to shave every day.)
In flashbacks, we find out about Constance’s difficult childhood, her troubled mother, and her childless marriage. I would have liked to find out more about the relationship between Constance and her husband. They have a seemingly loving relationship. Her husband is gentle and caring. He is frail, but it is not clear what exactly ails him. Constance owns the farm they live on, and she is the one to hunt and trade, which was a man’s responsibility in nineteenth-century America. It would have been interesting to know whether this for the time unusual split of responsibilities had any impact on their relationship.
In contrast, the relationship between Constance and the general and his wife is well developed and described. I also appreciated the mention of Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, and the little historic details that are given throughout, like the glass house that is built out of the glass plates that were used by photographers when they took portraits of soldiers, so that a faint image of the soldiers is visible whenever the sun shines onto the glass house.
Neverhome will be available for purchase September 9, 2014. I received a free copy of the book from Little, Brown and Company through Netgalley.