By Charlotte Hays
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
A SEPARATE COUNTRY
By Robert Hicks
Grand Central. 424 pp. $25.99
After one-legged Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood led his men to crushing defeat in the bloody Franklin-Nashville campaign of 1864, soldiers sang -- to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" -- a ditty about how "the gallant Hood of Texas/He played hell in Tennessee."
Robert Hicks's riveting new novel takes up Hood's life after the war. In New Orleans, he married Anna Marie Hennen, a Creole society girl, fathered 11 children and ultimately failed in business. Like the Hood of history, the Hood of this novel is engaged in writing a self-serving memoir designed to redeem his tarnished military reputation. Hicks's Hood, however, also has a second, secret memoir: Though filled with chilling adventure, it is really about the more important campaign for personal redemption.
Dying of yellow fever, Hood summons a friend named Eli Griffin, whose history has intertwined tragically with his own. He wants Griffin to publish his secret memoir, but only if his former comrade, now working as a hit man, approves of the project. The action unfolds through Hood's diary, letters from Anna Marie to their oldest daughter, and Griffin's account of his adventures while fulfilling the general's strange, last commission.
Hood made reckless decisions that cost thousands of lives during the Civil War, but Hicks depicts a scene before secession when, as a young officer in Texas, Hood orders his troops to commit an atrocity against the Comanche at the aptly named Devil's River. This horrific, well-written episode introduces Hood's diabolical protege, Sebastien Lemerle, another New Orleans Creole who plays a major role in the novel.
Anyone who has ever lived in New Orleans must be prepared to be made homesick, and the bizarre cast of characters, including a dwarf, a burly priest and a boy of mixed and mysterious parentage, wouldn't seem right in any city but this one.
I read "A Separate Country" with breakneck speed for that most old-fashioned of reasons: I wanted to see what happened next. And then I eagerly read it a second time to make sure I got the complicated twists and turns. Is there a better recommendation?
Charlotte Hays is a writer in Washington.