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Monday, July 18, 2011
I read this book months ago but was delayed by vision problems from finishing and posting the review. I wanted to polish it a bit, but decided to post it as is. It's a fine book and I didn't want to delay any longer. So here is my review of Women at Gettysburg: Fixin Things.
WOMEN AT GETTYSBURG: FIXIN’ THINGS
Peggy Ullman Bell
Peggy Ullman Bell is a fine writer, as I discovered when I read her novel about the woman we know as Sappho, “Sappho Sings.”
WOMEN AT GETTYSBURG: FIXIN’ THINGS is an historical novel centered on one traumatic and history-changing battle in the American Civil War, 1861-1865. The battle around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, left 21,000 men dead and wounded, fertile land laid waste, lives ruined. This book is not primarily a battlefield novel, however, except as events leading up to, during, and afterward affect the female protagonists.
From the beginning, the story brought to mind a line that has lingered in my mind since High School literature. Milton was not referring to war, but that’s what it has always made me think of: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Most of the war novels I have read—and I went through a Civil War phase years ago—focus on the soldiers, the fighting, the military. “Fixin’ Things” focuses on those who “stand and wait,” the civilians, mostly women in those days, who were affected in every way by war and struggled to keep their sanity, protect their families, and keep body and soul together in the midst of blood, death, mud, filth, and horrors they could never have imagined.
“Fixin’ Things” is the story of women. When the story opens, the women at Loren Farm, not far from the town of Gettysburg, Megan and her sister Kathin, are surreptitiously and dangerously involved in helping runaway slaves to maneuver the Underground Railway to freedom. Like many families in the nation, especially in the so-called border states, their family is divided. Kathin’s husand is a Union officer. Her sister-in-law is a pretentious Southern sympathizer married to a Confederate officer. Kathin and Megan are accustomed to frantic secrecy and tension because of their work helping runaway slaves, but they have no idea that the hideous cloud of battle is about to envelop them. Their lives and the lives of everyone they know are about to become hell on earth.
Feisty Megan Loren, at seventeen, knows what it is to be the unwilling object of a man’s lust; to make a bad situation worse, the man is her brother-in-law, husband to her older sister, Kathin. The husband, Union Army Captain Edwin Brown, is an arrogant, always randy “it’s my right as a man” type when it comes to sex. When the story opens, they are blissfully unaware that their family home, Loren Farm, will be in the midst of the great battle.
For a novel centered around a battle, there is comparatively little actual battle description but what there is, is very realistic. Her descriptions shine brightest when writing about the human element. It’s easy to think of historical battles as Historic Battles, forgetting, from our distant viewpoint, that there is no battle without desecrated human flesh.
The author hones in on the people.
Soldiers screaming in pain, faces and bodies ripped apart but somehow still living, bleeding out their young lives, pleading for death, facing the horrors of amputation with a dirty saw by a bloody-handed, exhausted doctor—and in one case a blacksmith—with no anesthetic and no pain killer, little water to quench burning thirst. The civilians, mostly women, dirty, sweaty, as exhausted as the doctors, doing their best to help without regard to which army the wounded belongs to. A peaceful town and bucolic countryside laid waste in three days, every available building turned into a field hospital. Petticoats torn into bandages, the women giving and doing all they can, knowing it’s not enough and wondering if it will ever end. Wonderful, harrowing descriptions by a master.
There is a fairly large cast of mostly female characters in addition to Megan and Kathin, including, among others, a woman blacksmith (the first I have ever discovered in a book) as strong as any man and her physically frail but lion-hearted “friend,” Anne.
I like the way the author presents them as just what they are: no sermon, no soapbox. One unforgettable female is as unlikable as you can imagine. Anyone who ever watched the TV series Little House On the Prairie will recognize Sybil Mercer, Kathin’s sister-in-law, as the doppelgänger of Harriet Oleson times two. Every time she opens her mouth, the reader feels like slapping her. Among the memorable lesser characters, is a young woman who has donned men’s clothes and is part of the battle as a soldier. The only character who did not come alive for me through the first part of the book was Lainy, Sybil Mercer’s daughter, mostly because she had been brought up to be no more than a smiling ornament. She does have an independent streak, but it wasn't very convincing until she, like the others, was dirty and bloody and terrified.
The focus is on the women, but the author also does well portraying the men, both good and bad. Cathin’s husband, Edwin, is a selfish, violent beast who thinks nothing of raping his own wife. There is Chris, the honorable Confederate soldier who falls in love with Megan. Most of all there is Sam, the free Negro who has been with Megan and Kathin’s family since he was a little boy. He’s almost predictably brave, loyal, and honest, with a fierce and protective love for the white family who took him in. Sam is by far the most interesting male character in the story.
Women at Gettysburg: Fixin Things is an exciting, well-written, meticulously researched, and thunderous book full of the violence of war, and the courage of women. I recommend it most highly.