Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, November 18, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013: Maximum Shelf: I Shall Be Near to You

Crown: I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe

Crown: I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe

Crown: I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe

Crown: I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe

I Shall Be Near to You

by Erin Lindsay McCabe

While American history will remember the current decade as one that saw a lift on restrictions that kept women from serving in frontline combat, many Americans already have no memory of a time when women weren't allowed to serve in the military. Erin Lindsay McCabe's quietly fierce debut transports readers back to 1862, a time when women in military uniforms were unthinkable, to meet a young bride who defied society to serve alongside the love of her life.

Rosetta has never fit the mold of a perfect lady. Unlike her more feminine sister, she balks at being trapped in the house sewing and is her Papa's "only son," more interested in farm chores than learning the art of life as a farmwife. When she marries her longtime sweetheart, Jeremiah, she can't help noticing this about her new sisters-in-law: "Alice and Sarah ain't a thing like me. Alice is big eyed and Sarah is quiet and both of them ain't a thing but gentle." When she's with Jeremiah, though, Rosetta feels loved and beautiful. Unfortunately, their wedding is precipitated by Jeremiah's enlistment in the Union Army and the appeal to both of them of widowhood versus spinsterhood should he not return from battle: Rosetta won't have Jeremiah leave her "like nothing" and Jeremiah will know his wages will go to her in the event of his death. But when their happy honeymoon ends quickly with his deployment, Rosetta comes to realize she doesn't just need marriage; she needs the husband she loves. Not only does she miss him fiercely in their empty house, she finds herself fending off sexual assault--albeit successfully--and coping with the pointed demands of a mother-in-law who sees Rosetta as a set of extra hands for women's work. When Rosetta offers to help the men instead, she is told, "You'd do better to remember you've come up in the world and do what you're asked."

In a flash of inspiration, Rosetta realizes that the only way to stop the pain of parting with Jeremiah is to reunite with him, to follow him even into the jaws of war. She knows some wives follow their enlisted husbands to camp and even earn a few pennies taking in laundry, but she would still find herself left behind should the soldiers be called into battle. The only way Rosetta can truly be with Jeremiah is to become a soldier herself, which carries the added benefit of a soldier's pay. With so many beardless youngsters enlisting, passing as male isn't terribly difficult. One haircut and one duped enlistment officer later, Rosetta is reborn as Ross, Union soldier, and her reunion with Jeremiah is complete. However, Rosetta's choices might not solve her problems as neatly as she imagined. Jeremiah has always loved her for herself and even taught her to throw a punch when they were younger, but a wife on the front lines might be more than even he can accept. Not only does she need his acceptance, Rosetta also needs the silence of their friends and neighbors from home who have enlisted with Jeremiah. Her deception may have fooled the enlistment personnel, but now she must continue the ruse every second of every day or face possible accusations of treason if she is discovered. Even if she can keep up appearances, all of their problems will seem beside the point if either she or Jeremiah falls to the life-ending machine that is the Civil War.

McCabe's strength clearly lies in creating characters of emotional depth and complexity. Rosetta's frank yet graceful voice will mesmerize readers. McCabe beautifully captures the rhythm of an older, more agrarian Northeastern accent without allowing the speech pattern to become a distraction. Instead, the reader simply hears the forthright, stubborn, and immensely strong heart of Rosetta, and although one may at times wish for the ability to save her from the inevitable pains her choices must bring, her determination makes it impossible not to follow her journey to its end. While Rosetta's larger-than-life personality may relegate all other characters to secondary standing, they each have their own layers. Rosetta's husband, Jeremiah, struggles realistically between his love for Rosetta and desire to support her independent spirit and his sense that what she's done breaks all bounds of propriety. Even more importantly, while Jeremiah might be ahead of society in accepting Rosetta's strength, he remains a man of his time in that he considers her protection his responsibility, and her very presence makes his task nearly impossible. Their fellow soldier Will befriends "Ross," but it's the revelation of his own secret that cements his friendship with Rosetta.

While Rosetta does train with the men and battle scenes play an important role in the plot, McCabe avoids the trap of turning her heroine into an action hero and instead gives Rosetta a highly realistic experience, largely shaped by the sharp-eyed captain's wife who sees through Rosetta's disguise and conscripts her to tend the wounded, a task Rosetta is no more suited for than needlework, but one that allows both heroine and reader an impactful look at the pain and loss of war. Although Rosetta lives on the Northern side of the Mason-Dixon line, she is able to recognize the tragedy of deaths on both sides, as well as the courage and cunning of a female Confederate spy. Rather than victory, showy heroism or the morality of one viewpoint over another, McCabe emphasizes a less direct bravery born of real love and the struggle to find individuality in a world of convention. While military standards may have changed, such themes provide the groundwork for any timeless story, including this one. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Crown, $24, hardcover, 9780804137720, January 28, 2014

Crown: I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe

Erin Lindsay McCabe: An Untold History

photo: Douglas Jastrow

Erin Lindsay McCabe studied literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, and taught high school English before completing her MFA at St. Mary's College of California in 2010. She has taught composition at St. Mary's and Butte College and resides in Northern California with her husband and son and a small menagerie that includes one dog, four cats, two horses, 10 chickens and two goats. We recently spoke with her about women, war and how the two come together in her novel.

Why do you think audiences are so fascinated by female warriors?

Female soldiers, in risking their lives on the battlefield--especially those who have families, who are married and have children--are flouting convention, and I think that captures our imaginations. We're also, as a culture, always working to define our ideas of gender and marriage and motherhood and femininity. Being a soldier requires traits--being physically aggressive, being assertive, being strong, being rational and coolheaded--that aren't part of the traditional definition of womanhood. Of course, women are all of these things and always have been, but that's not how women are perceived, even now. At the time Rosetta was a soldier, gender roles and notions of femininity were even more strictly defined--the Victorian ideal of middle-class womanhood was for her to be an "Angel in the Home"--so much so that it's been posited that one reason women were able to so easily pass as men was simply because they wore pants--and anyone who wore pants must be male. That said, there were also plenty of contemporary songs and stories in which a young woman disguised herself as a man to follow her love into battle. Maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise that many of the women who fought in the Civil War did the same thing, though there were many women who weren't going into battle to follow a loved one (in fact, none of the three women I found most inspiring--Rosetta Wakeman, Sarah Emma Edmonds and Jennie Hodgers--did). Maybe the portrayals of women going into battle for love, or for family, make it easier to swallow an exploration of all the ways in which the definition of femininity doesn't fit the reality. Which is also part of the reason why I think women warriors are often described in terms of their attractiveness. If she's going to behave in ways that aren't feminine, then at least if her appearance is feminine, it makes it easier to know how to place her.

What made you want to write this story?

When I first learned that women fought in the Civil War, I was completely shocked. I was in my last year at the University of California, Santa Cruz, researching a paper, and I stumbled across the collected letters of Rosetta Wakeman in the stacks. I couldn't believe that I had never heard that women had participated in the war as soldiers and in such numbers--more than 200 are documented, and estimates for actual participants range from 400 to 1,000. Then I read the letters and fell in love with the person they revealed, feisty and independent and brave but also loving and uncertain and ashamed. There were so many questions I had after reading Rosetta's letters. During that time, most everyone to whom I mentioned Rosetta's story was surprised to learn that women had served as soldiers during the Civil War, which galvanized my feeling that it was a part of history that piqued people's curiosity and had been largely untold.

Tell us about your research on the female soldiers who inspired this novel.

My initial research was Rosetta Wakeman's letters themselves, and the commentary and context provided by the editor of the collection, Lauren M. Cook. From there I looked at books that provided a survey of women's service--most notably DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook Burgess's They Fought Like Demons. What I kept bumping up against, though, was that most of the information about women who fought was filtered through other sources--military records, newspaper accounts, the letters and remembrances of other soldiers. I think it's a big part of why this story lends itself so well to fiction--because the records we have don't give much insight into the actual thoughts and feelings of the women who made the choice to disguise themselves and fight.

You send your character Rosetta into battle infrequently. What made you decide to keep the battlefield action to a minimum?

In Rosetta Wakeman's letters and other research, it seemed that the soldiers were often languishing in camp--there were long stretches between battles where nothing was happening, and they often thought they were about to get sent to battle and then wouldn't; so many soldiers complained that they wanted to see battle and yet hadn't. I also wanted to stay true to the kinds of duties the real Rosetta had--drilling, prison guard duty, picket duty, marching--and show the ways in which the soldiers' experience of war wasn't only on the battlefield. And then, finally, there was the reality of writing battle scenes. I had originally planned that Rosetta and Jeremiah would fight in three major battles: Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg. But once I immersed myself in writing those scenes--the emotions, the tension, the dread, the loss--it was hard to be in that dark place for so long. I started to feel that if I wrote more battle scenes, the horror of what those battles must have been like would be lost--the experience of battle would come to feel routine or the characters would have to become more numb (or I would!) and they might lose some of their humanity.

How did you decide whether to make Rosetta a Union or Confederate soldier?

Despite having ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War, it was never a question for me whether the fictional Rosetta would fight for the Union or the Confederacy. I wanted to stay true to the service of the real person of Rosetta Wakeman, who fought for the Union. Then, too, the records of female service are much more complete for the Union because so many of the records from the Confederacy were destroyed. So although there are records of women fighting for the Confederacy, it felt easier to support the participation of a woman in the Union Army. I wanted to have the strength of numbers on my side. I think, had I chosen to write from the perspective of a woman fighting for the Confederacy, it might have been harder to focus on gender as the central conflict. Also, coming from the North, where it was perhaps more common for a woman to have practical experience doing physical labor, made Rosetta's ability to pass as a man more believable.

What's next for you?

I'm in the early stages of working on another historical novel. The inspiration for the story is Jennie Olsen, the adopted daughter of serial killer Belle Gunness. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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