Post–Civil War tensions complicate the romance between an abolitionist's son and the spirited sister of a rebel sympathizer in Nixon's uneven latest (after Angels Go Naked). Four years after the war, in Jarrettsville, Md., Martha Cairnes kills her fiancé, Nicholas McComas, and demands to be arrested and hanged. The narrative then moves backward to explain how the lovers came together: Martha falls for Nick even though he has a reputation as a scoundrel. Nick, meanwhile, thinks marriage is out of the question, especially after it's revealed that his father, killed under mysterious circumstances, has left behind a mountain of debt. Yet the two are soon engaged, and Martha's brother, who may have been involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, resents Nick's efforts to support three former Cairnes slaves, and a tangle of crossed loyalties wreak havoc on the engagement. Nixon tells the tale à la Shadow Country, with a chorus of narrators, but here the variety of voices and the disparate narrative elements—historical account, tragic romance, courtroom drama—renders unclear what kind of story the author is trying to tell, and the riveting beginning is sabotaged by the restrained conclusion. (Oct.)
The tragic end of a love affair precipitates an epic court case in a small Maryland town riven by the Civil War. Martha Jane Cairnes shoots Nicholas McComas to death at a celebration of the fourth anniversary of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Nixon (Angels Go Naked, 2000, etc.) stitches together multiple narratives and points of view to describe the murder, then backtracks to explore the events that led Martha to kill. From the time they fall in love at the war's end, Nicholas and Martha are caught in its residual grudges. He comes from abolitionist ilk, while she boasts a proud Southern heritage. Various narrators economically relate their story in relay, seldom overlapping and rendering the community in lively, lifelike perspective. From the former slaves who act as nurses to the doctor who witnesses Nicholas' dying throes and his son's birth, the entire community is involved in the strangulation of an innocent love affair. Nicholas' sympathy for the newly freed slaves puts him afoul of Confederate thugs like Martha's brother Richard. Yet he is not immune from the racist mores of the day and is haunted by accusations, after she is seen regularly visiting a hurt freedman, that Martha has engaged in miscegenation. For many in Jarrettsville, codes of honor trump federally imposed law, and when Nicholas gets cold feet concerning the engagement, rumors of scandal run amok. His portions of the narrative painfully trace faltering will, self-doubt and moral decline. At Martha's murder trial, more than just one young woman stands accused. Thrilling and cathartic, this imaginative, well-crafted historical fiction meditates on morality and the complexity of motivation.