Ghosts crowd thick in Laird Hunt’s Civil War novel, “Neverhome,” and they’re not just the shades of dead Blues and Grays. A host of literary allusions haunt this book, from “Cold Mountain” to “The Red Badge of Courage” and all the way back to Homer. But what’s most striking is Hunt’s effective reversal of the roles of brave warrior and patient homemaker. In this trim epic, Penelope marches into battle while Odysseus waits behind. Inspired by true tales of hundreds of women who fought in the War Between the States, “Neverhome” tells the story of a young wife named Constance who cuts her hair, binds her breasts and heads off to defend the Union in 1862.
That extraordinary act seems at first a way to spare her timid husband, Bartholomew, from the burden of enlisting. He’s a great dancer but not much of a fighter. “We were about the same small size, but he was made out of wool and I was made out of wire,” Constance says. “He would turn away any time he could, and I never, ever backed down.”
Soon, it’s clear that she isn’t just protecting her husband back in Indiana; she craves the battlefield. “If I didn’t stay to see some of the fight,” she tells us, “I would forever be filled with the echoes of regret and the ague of remorse.” Life among soldiers makes her “fierce happy.”
Untraditional as they both are, Constance and Bartholomew are a good match, comfortable with their reversed roles, without sounding like third-wave feminists or even 21st-century liberals leaning in or helping out around the house. In fact, “Neverhome” succeeds largely because Constance’s voice sounds so historically distant, like a foreign cousin of our own era.
Hunt, whose previous novel, “Kind One,” was a finalist for last year’s PEN/Faulkner Award, avoids what Henry James called the “fatal cheapness” of historical fiction. The Master wasn’t just anticipating the stunning white teeth of those underwear models that make today’s costume dramas so anachronistic. He was warning about something beyond mere detail: “You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like,” James advised, but that can’t help an author with “the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent.”
In “Neverhome,” Hunt lays out an “old consciousness” informed only by the example of Constance’s steely mother, who stood up for weaker people until she hanged herself from an ash tree in the yard. I suspect Hollywood is already circling around this story, trying to figure out how Constance can be stripped of her irreducible oddness and transformed into a Civil War Lara Croft. (Resist, Mr. Hunt, resist!)
Over the course of the novel, in a series of three- and four-page chapters, Hunt draws Constance through the weird mixture of horror and absurdity of a nation tearing itself apart. Disguised as a soldier, she gives herself the name Ash Thompson, but despite her sharp shot and good discipline, she’s never really one of the boys. Her fellow soldiers sense her reserve, even her special competence, and when she performs a courtesy for a girl in one of the towns they pass through, Constance gets the nickname “Gallant Ash,” a sobriquet that eventually inspires folktales and campfire songs.
The battle scenes are short and intense, filled with surreal images of sudden destruction wrought from afar. “We started to see gray off in the distance,” she says. “The cannon fire grew so hot it seemed like the injury was already being done to us before we had fairly arrived and that we were already part of the world’s everlasting grief and glory, and we could see the trees crashing down destroyed in the heights and hear the sound, from all quarters, of hurt men letting the air out of their throats. . . . The boy next to me caught his ravishing and fell away just as we were lifting our guns.” What a rare pleasure to spend a few hours listening to the natural poetry of that antique voice.
Even more compelling, though, are Constance’s peculiar adventures away from battle, when she’s captured by bandits or, later, imprisoned. Her ingenuity, combined with her ability to switch genders in a flash, makes her a particularly wily fighter. But nothing will prepare you for the way her quick-trigger brutality explodes off the page. Trained by her mother never to turn the other cheek, she doesn’t hesitate to shoot a dishonorable man in the mouth. Discovering that an assailant isn’t quite dead, she calmly shoots him again. “You get to where you can do things you couldn’t have dreamed up the outline of before,” she notes.
Other scenes along this picaresque adventure are “as vague as the horse’s dream.” Walking through a field that holds hundreds of “the dead and the about-dead,” passing through a town in which all the residents have gone mad, watching an assembly line of amputations — these real-life nightmares are as otherworldly as the scenes of ghostly visitation. But not all of Constance’s sights are unrelentingly ghastly. Indeed, one of the most memorable things she sees is a greenhouse made entirely from photographic glass plates of soldiers, their images gradually fading in the sun. How beautiful a vision is that?
Years later, looking over books on the Civil War, Constance complains, “You would think it was just captains and colonels and generals leading each other in one after another handsome charge. . . . In these stories, women are saints and angels and men are courageous noble folk and everything they do gets done nice and quick and nothing smells like blood.” Alas, she knows better: “It wasn’t pretty.” But in the daguerreotype hues of this narrative, the adventures of one unusual soldier are wound with the tones of an ancient tragedy.
Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear in Style every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Laird Hunt
Little, Brown. 246 pp. $26