The Widow of the South

The Widow of the South

3.7 136
by Robert Hicks

View All Available Formats & Editions

Carnton Plantation, 1894: Carrie McGavock is an old woman who tends the graves of the almost 1,500 soldiers buried there. As she walks among the dead, an elderly man appears—the same soldier she met that fateful day long ago. Today, he asks if the cemetery has room for one more.

Based on an extraordinary true story, this brilliant, meticulously

See more details below


Carnton Plantation, 1894: Carrie McGavock is an old woman who tends the graves of the almost 1,500 soldiers buried there. As she walks among the dead, an elderly man appears—the same soldier she met that fateful day long ago. Today, he asks if the cemetery has room for one more.

Based on an extraordinary true story, this brilliant, meticulously researched novel flashes back to 1864 and the afternoon of the Civil War. While the fierce fighting rages on Carrie's land, her plantation turns into a Confederate army hospital; four generals lie dead on her back porch; the pile of amputated limbs rises as tall as the smoke house. But when a wounded soldier named Zachariah Cashwell arrives at her house, he awakens feelings she had thought long dead—and inspires a passion as powerful and unforgettable as the war that consumes a nation.

Editorial Reviews

Paulette Jiles
… Carrie McGavock's convoluted internal monologues about why she feels impelled to rescue the wounded and bury the dead halt the narrative in its tracks. Better to stick with Cashwell; he alone is worth the read. I'd follow him anywhere, wooden leg and all.
3 The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Hicks's big historical first novel, based on true events in his hometown, follows the saga of Carrie McGavock, a lonely Confederate wife who finds purpose transforming her Tennessee plantation into a hospital and cemetery during the Civil War. Carrie is mourning the death of several of her children, and, in the absence of her husband, has left the care of her house to her capable Creole slave Mariah. Before the 1864 battle of Franklin, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest commandeers her house as a field hospital. In alternating points of view, the battle is recounted by different witnesses, including Union Lt. Nathan Stiles, who watches waves of rebels shot dead, and Confederate Sgt. Zachariah Cashwell, who loses a leg. By the end of the battle, 9,000 soldiers have perished, and thousands of Confederates are buried in a field near the McGavock plantation. Zachariah ends up in Carrie's care at the makeshift hospital, and their rather chaste love forms the emotional pulse of the novel, while Carrie fights to relocate the buried soldiers when her wealthy neighbor threatens to plow up the field after the war. Valiantly, Hicks returns to small, human stories in the midst of an epic catastrophe. Though occasionally overwrought, this impressively researched novel will fascinate aficionados. Agent, Jeff Kleinman. Major ad/promo, 15-city publicity tour. (Aug.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
John McGavock, the husband of our eponymous heroine, isn't even dead when she begins wearing black, but the mantle of mourning seems to fit Carrie McGavock. Having lost three young children, it is perhaps appropriate that she becomes the caretaker of over 1500 Confederate dead, all killed at the Battle of Franklin, TN, in 1864. Based on a true story, music publisher Hicks's first novel brings the reader onto the battlefield and into the lives of its survivors, including Zachariah Cashwell, an Arkansas soldier whose presence at the makeshift hospital established in the McGavock home shakes Carrie out of her stupor: "I had discovered why I had been drawn to him," she says. "He is a living thing, not a dying one." And it is life, after all, that drives Hicks's story. We know from the outset about Carrie's cemetery, but her journey to that place is compellingly told. Highly recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/05.]-Bette-Lee Fox, Library Journal Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A thunderous, action-rich first novel of the Civil War, based on historical fact. Music publisher Hicks treats a long-overlooked episode of the war in this account of the Battle of Franklin, Tenn., which took place in November 1864 near Nashville. As a field hospital is pitched in her field, Carrie McGavock, an iron-spined farm woman and upstanding citizen of the town, takes it upon herself to tend after the Confederate wounded; later, she and her husband will rebury 1,500 of the fallen on their property. Hicks centers much of the story on Carrie, who has seen her own children die of illness and who has endurance in her blood. "I was not a morbid woman," Carrie allows, "but if death wanted to confront me, well, I would not turn my head. Say what you have to say to me, or leave me alone." Other figures speak their turn. One is a young Union officer amazed at the brutal and sometimes weird tableaux that unfold before him; as the bullets fly, he pauses before a 12-year-old rebel boy suffocating under the weight of his piled-up dead comrades. "Suffocated. I had never considered the possibility," young Lt. Stiles sighs. Another is an Arkansas soldier taken prisoner by the Yankees: "I became a prisoner and accepted all the duties of a prisoner just as easily as I'd picked up the damned colors and walked forward to the bulwarks." Yet another is Nathan Forrest, who would strike fear in many a heart as a Confederate cavalryman, and later as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Hicks renders each of these figures with much attention to historical detail and a refreshing lack of genre cliche, closing with a subtle lament for the destruction of history before the bulldozer: "One longs to know that somethings don't change, that some of us will not be forgotten, that our perambulations upon the earth are not without point or destination."An impressive addition to the library of historical fiction on the Civil War, worthy of a place alongside The Killer Angels, Rifles for Watie and Shiloh. First printing of 75,000

Read More

Product Details

Grand Central Publishing
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.12(d)

Read an Excerpt

From the Prologue


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."

"How old?"

"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?"

"She dead."

"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

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >