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In an extraordinary debut novel, based on a remarkable true story, Robert Hicks draws an unforgettable, panoramic portrait of a woman who, through love and loss, found a cause. Known throughout the country as "the Widow of the South," Carrie McGavock gave her heart first to a stranger, then to a tract of hallowed ground-and became a symbol of a nation's soul.
The novel flashes back thirty years to the afternoon of the Battle of Franklin, five of the bloodiest hours of the Civil War. There were 9,200 casualties that fateful day. Carrie's home -- the Carnton plantation -- was taken over by the Confederate army and turned into a hospital; four generals lay dead on her back porch; the pile of amputated limbs rose as tall as the smoke house. And when a wounded soldier named Zachariah Cashwell arrived and awakened feelings she had thought long dead, Carrie found herself inexplicably drawn to him despite the boundaries of class and decorum. The story that ensues between Carrie and Cashwell is just as unforgettable as the battle from which it is drawn.
The Widow of the South is a brilliant novel that captures the end of an era, the vast madness of war, and the courage of a remarkable woman to claim life from the grasp of death itself.
Carrie watched him go and then turned to Mariah, whom she had once owned, a gift to her from her father. She was a gift, whatever the meaning and implications of that word. Mariah had been her tether to the earth when things had spun away, when Carrie wasn't sure if there remaineda real and true life for her, and then when she wasn't sure if she wanted that life even if it existed. Things had been different once. She couldn't believe that she had ever been so . . . what? Weak? No, that wasn't it. She'd never been weak. She'd been buffeted and knocked down, like grass bent to the ground by the wind preceding a thunderstorm. She'd been slow to get up. But she did get up, eventually. There had been no choice. She was not afraid of much, and she especially wasn't afraid of God. Not anymore, not for a long time.
"Mariah, what do you see?"
A mockingbird chased a hawk across the width of the cemetery, diving and chattering at the black shadow until it was banished from whatever bit of territory the smaller bird claimed for its own.
"I see a mockingbird. And some of them yellow birds. Finches. Big old bird with claws, too."
Mariah looked past her mistress, across the field of tall grass.
424 Killed at Franklin/Mississippi
"You know that isn't what I mean."
Carrie could see the markers and the grass, and the iron fence ringing the graveyard. She could turn and see the back of her house and remember the beards on the dead generals laid out on the porch below and the keening of the wounded on the balcony above. She could see just fine. But there was more to seeing than that, she thought. It was either a failure of imagination or a slight by the Lord Himself, but in any case she could not see the things Mariah could see. Mariah could tell her about things that gave her comfort, and Carrie cared not a whit about how she came upon the knowledge.
She pointed at a grave marker in the Tennessee section. MJM, it read. In places, twigs leaned against the stones. She made a mental note to tell the yard boy about them.
"What about him? That one."
"Miss Carrie, please, ma'am. This ain't right."
Carrie stared hard at the seam of her dress, where the new thread of her latest mending stood out like a long dark cord against the faded black of her ankle-length dress. She hadn't known how to sew before the war, and she still wasn't very good at it. They would have to dye the whole thing soon.
"I would like to know about that man."
Mariah wasn't sure that what she saw in her mind was real, just the product of a fevered imagination, or maybe the work of the devil himself making her play games with the white woman whom she loved in a way she could not describe. Fragments of light and sound came to her when she let her mind drift, and the words Carrie craved formed on Mariah's lips unbidden. It was a thoughtless exercise, a pastime to while away an afternoon. The thing she did know, the only thing she knew for sure, was that Carrie believed. Mariah could feel that on her.
"I don't know what to say, ma'am."
"Yes, you do. Don't play. We're too old for that. Tell me what you see when you stare into the earth right there. Don't hold back. I know when you're holding back."
Mariah closed her eyes and went silent, hoping Carrie would forget her little obsession and keep walking. But Carrie stayed put, so Mariah began to speak.
"There a man and a boy. It sunny. They ain't working, so maybe they just home from church."
"The man, he a man. Got a beard. Dark, strong. He ain't old or young. The boy, he just a little one, though he think he bigger. Maybe ten. He got a fishing pole in his hand. They going to catch fish."
"Is there a woman?"
"How do you know that?"
"'Cause they going out fishing in they church clothes."
She heard him before she saw him. A small cough, followed by a louder, deeper cough that he tried to swallow back. She turned toward the house and there, in the path between the gravestones, stood an old man. A surprisingly old man. He was thin and pepper-haired, and his eyes were too dark for her to see where he was looking. They were set back too far in his head to distinguish them from the shadows. He stood up tall and held his old bowler in his hand. She could see him nervously massaging his knuckles under the hat, which caused a little halo of dust to rise up off the felt. He wore a long coat that was slightly too short and scuffed boots. His mouth was twisted up in what appeared to be a smirk, but which she knew was not. He watched her closely and walked toward her with the faintest hint of a limp, enough to make her heart break. The twisted and dried-out parts of him still contained just the memory of his old beauty-all the parts of him were still there, they'd just been used up. He stood before her, so close she could hear the air whistling in and out of him. She knew him immediately, as if he'd left only the day before.
"Why'd you scare that boy, Mrs. McGavock?"
"I love that boy."
"He one of yours?"
"Do I look like he could be my child?"
"I meant, is he your grandson or something? That's possible, ain't it?"
"No, he's not my grandson, just a stray off the street."
"Just a stray," the man repeated.
They paused and looked at each other, and Carrie felt angry that he'd come without warning. The feeling passed. She pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear and squinted hard at him.
"I didn't mean to insinuate anything," she said.
"I reckon I ain't had anyone insinuate anything about me in a long time. I didn't take no offense."
"But none was meant."
The old man stopped and toed at the grass with his foot. He looked around at the grave markers like he had misplaced something. He started to sway a little, and Mariah moved quickly behind him, ready to steady him if she had to, but not willing to speak or acknowledge him. He spoke again.
"I thought we decided a long time ago that folks don't always know what they mean. Or what things mean, for that matter."
Carrie considered this. "I suppose we did."
The old man bent over in a fit of coughing, slapping at his breast pocket until he found an old handkerchief to spit into. Mariah bent over him with her hand on his back and looked up at Carrie like she'd just seen something she wished she hadn't. He stared at his handkerchief, snorted dismissively, and put it away, all the while bent over like he was catching his breath.
Carrie had the feeling that she was falling. How could he be like this? This was not the man she'd known, not the man she remembered. The air spun and hummed around her.
She walked to his side and took his chin in her hand, hard, and pulled until he was looking her in the eye. Mariah cried out and tried to stop her, but Carrie waved her off. She saw him fully for the first time and reached with her other hand to wipe rheumy tears from the corners of his eyes and to feel the loose drape of his skin over sharp cheekbones. He struggled to keep from coughing in her face.
"What's the matter with you, soldier?"
She let him go, and he slowly stood up straight. He held his bowler near his mouth, just in case.
"Well, I reckon I can guess, but I ain't seen anyone who could tell me straight. Can't afford such a person. I've been thinking that, after all these years, I might finally die and not know for sure what killed me. That makes me laugh some."
Carrie said nothing, and then: "If I were to guess from your past history, I would say you'll outlive us all."
"I once thought I was cursed that way, yes, ma'am. But no more. There ain't no more curses out there. My history don't mean nothing. Not anymore, thank God."
She could picture him as a younger man, lying bleeding on the floor of her parlor and then sitting up in one of the chairs of her husband's study, staring out the window. She remembered his nose and how sharp it was in profile, how the light seemed changed after passing over it. He was like a cameo; at least that's what her mind remembered. She'd become used to him quickly, and back then she thought he'd be there forever. Then he was gone. She closed her eyes.
"If you're going to die, there's a place for you here."
"That's what I meant to ask you about."
Copyright © 2005 by Robert Hicks
2. Do you believe that Zachariah really wanted to die when he picked up the colors on the battlefield? Why does Nathan Stiles spare Zachariah on the battlefield specifically, when others carrying the colors were killed? Is Zachariah grateful to be spared, or is he regretful, or a little of both, and why?
3. Does John McGavock undergo a character transformation from the beginning of the novel, when he and Theopolis encounter the gang of ruffians in the woods, to the end, when we see scenes him of him wandering around Franklin somewhat aimlessly? How do you think he views the war? How do you think he views his role, or his non-role, in the war? And how does this compare with Carrie's attitude towards the war?
4. In the author's note Robert Hicks says of Mariah, "… I have concluded that Mariah may well have been the most complete human of them all." Mariah never let her enslavement define her. Do you agree?
5. Discuss how the death of their children affected both Carrie and John. What is the difference between the attachment mothers and fathers have with their children? Do you think John would have begun drinking whether his children had died or not? And do you think Carrie had a propensity for eccentricity and seclusion?
6. When Carrie first notices Zachariah in her upstairs guest room, she remarks: "Unlike most of the men, he looked ready to die. He looked as if he were welcoming it, urging it along…I wanted his eyes on me." Why does Carrie take to Zachariah, and why does she later give him special treatment? Do you think it was purely physical attraction? Does Zachariah's welcoming of his own death conflict with Carrie's values?
7. Faith plays a large part in each character's motivations. Discuss the role of belief in a higher power and how it guides Carrie, Zachariah, and Mariah in their actions. For most of us, our belief system changes or 'grows' over the span of our lives, one way or the other. How did Carrie's faith change over the span of the novel?
8. Why do you think Carrie beats Zachariah on the porch? Were you surprised by this or did you understand it?
9. Zachariah and Carrie have an intense love affair yet it's never consummated sexually. Do you think the fact they never were physically intimate takes away or adds to their relationship, or does it matter?
10. At one point Carrie tells Mariah, "You always could have left, even when you weren't allowed. I would have never stopped you." Do you think this is true? Carrie seems to think of Mariah as her best friend, but she was really her property, a "gift" her father gave to her as a child. Do you think Carrie tries to make herself appear a better friend/owner than she really was? Discuss Carrie and Mariah's relationship. Could friendship really transcend enslavement?
11. Among the political issues leading up to the Civil War was the South's strong adherence to the doctrine of 'state's rights.' Among the issues to come out of the war was the emancipation of the enslaved in the 'slave states,' whether they had remained loyal to the union or had seceded and joined the Confederacy. Yet, neither of these political issues is ever addressed 'head-on' in the book. Why do you think that is?
12. Carrie comes from a rich, educated family. She is "learned." Zachariah is poor, and almost illiterate. Yet do you think one is wiser than the other?
Robert Hicks has said, "good writing is about transformation." We see transformation in Carrie, Zechariah and in their relationship, in John, in his and Carrie's relationship, in Mariah and her relationship with Carrie. Are we left with any sense that Mr. Baylor ever comes to any real peace about what has happened?
13. What does Carrie mean when she says the following to Zachariah: "You are my key. You will explain things I have not been able to understand…I want you to explain to me why I wanted you to live and why I was able to make you live. Because I don't understand, not really, and the answer is very important to me." What is Carrie not able to understand about herself, and what answer does she think Zachariah will be able to provide?
14. Carrie takes Eli into her home and he quickly assumes the role of a surrogate son and Winder's surrogate brother. How do Carrie's actions speak to her changing perceptions of family? Has her work running the hospital changed her maternal instincts or is she simply responding to the nature of war?
15. At the town party, Carrie remarks about how she doesn't fit in with the other women; Mrs. McEwen pokes fun of her efforts and jokingly calls her "St. Carrie." Why do these women resent Carrie, and does it bother her? Does Carrie see herself as saintly?
16. In 1894, after John has died, and Mariah, Carrie and Zachariah are all elderly, why does Zachariah not profess his love for Carrie more overtly? Over time, did his love become more of respect and admiration for her heroism, or are his feelings for her just as romantically intense?
Posted January 1, 2013
The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
I stopped reading this book when Carrie McGavock, a character based on a real person, beat a wounded soldier with a crutch. This rambling tome insults the memory of the McGavock family, and of the men and women who lived in Williamson County during those turbulent years. Sullying the life of Mrs. McGavock by having her engaging in an affair with a man outside of marriage was just too much for me to stomach. Mr. Hicks should be ashamed. He, at least, should have changed the names and location.