The General and Julia: A Novel

The General and Julia: A Novel

by Jon Clinch
The General and Julia: A Novel

The General and Julia: A Novel

by Jon Clinch

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Overview

Longlisted for the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award

Ulysses S. Grant reflects on the crucial moments of his life as a husband, a father, a general, and a president while writing his memoirs and reckoning with his complicated legacy in this epic and intimate work of “superb historical fiction” (Booklist, starred review).

Barely able to walk and rendered mute by the cancer metastasizing in his throat, Ulysses S. Grant is scratching out words, hour after hour, day after day. Desperate to complete his memoirs before his death so his family might have some financial security and he some redemption, Grant journeys back in time.

He had once been the savior of the Union, the general to whom Lee surrendered at Appomattox, a twice-elected president who fought for the civil rights of Black Americans and against the rising Ku Klux Klan, a plain farmer-turned-business magnate who lost everything to a Wall Street swindler, a devoted husband to his wife Julia, and a loving father to four children. In this gorgeously rendered and moving novel, Grant rises from the page in all of his contradictions and foibles, his failures and triumphs.

Moving from blood-stained battlefields to Gilded Age New York, the novel explores how Grant’s own views on race and Reconstruction changed over time. “A graceful, moving narrative” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) from historical fiction master Jon Clinch, this evocatively crafted novel breathes fresh life into an American icon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781668009789
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 11/14/2023
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 33,495
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.00(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Jon Clinch is the author of the acclaimed novels Finn, Kings of the Earth, The Thief of Auschwitz, Belzoni Dreams of Egypt, Marley, and The General and Julia. A native of upstate New York, Jon lives with his wife in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Find out more at JonClinch.com.

Hometown:

Harleysville, Pennsylvania

Date of Birth:

September 12, 1954

Place of Birth:

Oneida, New York

Education:

A.B. in English, Syracuse University, 1976

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: 1843: The Canary CHAPTER 1 1843 The Canary
How large a box shall be required?

The canary is the smallest of creatures, three inches long if that. To take its precise measure would be indelicate regardless of his good intentions. So he bends to it upon its bed of linen, and he touches its cool, dry, brilliant feathers with his finger, and he subtly gauges its length against the count of his knuckles. That will be measurement enough.

What is its color? The very shade of a lemon.

How much does it weigh? Little more than its own last breath.

Birdie’s sudden passing breaks her heart. At sunup he was his usual cheery self, welcoming the morning to her bedroom with his repertoire of peeps and chirps and burbles. His song, his color—indeed, his very pulsing presence—were all so lovely and so familiar as to be utterly beneath notice. Now their absence pains her. His cage hangs empty, its black shadow a ragged latticework stain upon the blue wall.

Her father looks up from his soup plate, notes the little cloud of linen on the sideboard, and fixes it with a furious eye. “Jule,” he barks in the direction of the kitchen, “come here and dispose of that wretched bird.”

But before the slave girl can pass through the kitchen door, his daughter stops her, touching a hand to her upturned arm. In this position the colors of their skin are nearly indistinguishable.

“Did you hear me, Jule?” says the father, old Frederick Dent. “Are you bringing my tray? Will you dispose of that bird at last? I swear, it’s put me off my appetite.”

“Yes, sir,” says Jule, with a desperate glance at the hand that blocks her without exerting even the slightest pressure. The intent alone is enough.

“Jule has her hands full,” says his daughter. “I’ll see to Birdie myself.”

“I require no excuses for that girl’s shortcomings. Especially from you.” The old planter—known in these precincts as “the colonel,” although he has never served in any army known to God or man—coughs around the stem of his pipe. “Birdie,” he mutters into his mustache, giving his head a little shake, as if the poor lump of feathers and flesh does not even deserve a name. It won’t make a meal, so it had best be disposed of before it draws vermin.

He shakes his head again. Birdie. Ridiculous.

The colonel is no native to these parts. He comes from Maryland, where as a young man he found employment in the fur trade and forged a deep and unexamined sympathy with the Southern cause. White Haven is the name he gave this rich tract of Missouri farmland, and a white haven it is. Its acres yield up wheat by the bushel and corn by the wag along with every fruit known to grow upon twig or vine or bush. Its population of chickens and sheep and milk cows is constantly in flux and thus without accurate number. The Gravois Creek runs sparkling through its heart, teeming with fish. To maintain this Eden requires the ceaseless toil of thirty-six black slaves, to say nothing of the colonel’s occasional contributions in the way of general oversight.

The daughter and the slave girl are nearly the same age, and by coincidence they are both named Julia. The black girl goes by “Jule,” the last two syllables of her Christian name having been lopped off in the service of clarity. She makes now for the head of the table where the colonel waits, his lower lip jutting and his round belly keeping him a few inches farther from his plate than is entirely convenient. He puts down his pipe and harrumphs in her direction as she draws near, and then he harrumphs once more toward Julia as she approaches the sideboard. Jule takes up the colonel’s empty soup plate and replaces it with his entrée—fried chicken, biscuits with gravy, quivering slices of some kind of aspic—while Julia takes up the linen bed holding Birdie and squares it bravely at the level of her heart.

“So when did the creature expire?”

“Shortly after dawn. Suddenly.”

“We should expect no miracles from it, I suppose.”

“Father?”

“No resurrection, I mean. After three days of mourning.”

“Father, I shall miss him and I shall miss his song.”

“The trees are full of birds,” says the colonel, taking up a drumstick. He dismisses her with a wave of its greasy stob. “Now away with that one, before you spoil my digestion entirely.”

Julia wonders if the young lieutenant will visit today. She knows that she has no right to make even so light a claim upon him, no right in all the world, but she wonders all the same. Her mind does the knowing and her heart does the wondering and there is no clear way to reconcile the two.

She steps out onto the porch and takes a seat on the swing. Its chain creaks under her weight but then it always creaks, even in the littlest breeze. The sound of it is a constant around here, like work. She places the bird beside her and idly caresses his little round head with one finger. In life, Birdie had no patience for such treatment. That she can accomplish it now is a broken dream come true, and it draws a tear to her eye.

She dabs away the tear with the back of her hand, wondering again or perhaps still if the young lieutenant might be planning to visit today. He could be on his way even now. Anything is possible. He first came to White Haven at the invitation of her older brother, Fred, his roommate at West Point. Fred thought the world of the lieutenant and said so by way of introduction, and Julia has thus far found no reason to differ. In recent months the lieutenant’s appearances have become increasingly frequent—two or even three times a week, whether her brother is on the premises or not, he will ride the five miles from Jefferson Barracks so as to pass a pleasant hour or two—and although he always pays his respects to the colonel, she is becoming quite certain that visiting with him is not his only aim. Far from it. The truth is, he enters her father’s presence with the sturdy gloom of a man going into battle, and he takes his leave like a prisoner set free.

She dares not think that he might be coming on her account. She dares not think it, and yet think it she does. She thinks it and she desires it and she wishes it with all her bereft and birdless heart, squeezing her eyes shut and gritting her teeth and sending that message out into the ether as if the lieutenant might possess some mystical receptor that would let him detect it and interpret it and, based upon its urgency, stir himself to the heroic action of her rescue.

It takes him until the middle of the afternoon. She is upstairs, looking out her bedroom window, the bird wrapped in its white linen and lying on the sill. He arrives without ceremony astride an anonymous army horse that seems to know her way and to be in no special hurry, judging by how she idles along the farm lane, nosing at the bits of grass that sprout up around the fence posts. She turns in at the gate and makes for the wooden trough alongside the barn, and her rider permits her. He sits the horse while she drinks her fill and then he dismounts and ties her up loosely and proceeds to the house. Everyone knows him and he greets them all one after another, hired man and slave alike. He glances at one point toward her window but she cannot tell if he sees her or only the reflected world. The look upon his face in that instant—in half shadow beneath the brim of his hat—is impossible to read.

“Lieutenant Grant,” cries Jule from the foyer at his knock, and upstairs Julia hears the words with the very soles of her feet.

His old roommate’s little sister. If there could be a plainer and less romantic connection than this, she cannot imagine it. She sits on the end of the bed and looks out the window, chewing her lip and bemoaning her fate. His old roommate’s little sister. It is a poor place to start. Yet he has come once again, has he not? He can be no more than twenty or thirty feet away at this very instant, dutifully and deferentially making small talk in the sweltering oven of her father’s dim, hot, airless office. She ought to rejoice in his nearness and in the promise of his calling on her once the colonel is finished with him. She ought to rejoice in this as she rejoices in so many aspects of the charmed life she leads. She is a most fortunate girl, after all—in good health, adored by her family, and secure in the sheltered and bountiful world of White Haven. She should appreciate the gifts she has been given, and not go seeking trouble. She settles her mind on this idea and she lets her gaze drift—from the fields to the barnyard and from the barnyard to the walk and from the walk to her own windowsill, whereon lies the bird. Yes. It is Birdie’s death that has her in this wounded mood. That’s all there is to it.

She slips from the bed and puts her ear to the floorboards and can nearly make out the words that filter up from below as her father regales the lieutenant with one of his disquisitions. An occasional grunt of agreement from his young visitor serves as a kind of punctuation, but otherwise it is a solo performance. If she has learned anything in her eighteen years, it’s that once her father gets started, there is rarely need or opportunity for anyone else to put in a word. The colonel possesses refined and unshakable opinions on most everything created by God during His six days of labor, as well as a list of things He ought to have undertaken on that first misspent Sabbath.

At least, she thinks, He managed to create Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant.

Time passes and the shadows in the barnyard begin to lengthen and the conversation from the room below, if conversation it may be called, slows and stalls and sputters to a halt. She knows from previous visits that the lieutenant shall be released at any moment, and since there are few other family members around for him to call upon today, she must head downstairs directly if their paths are to cross before he takes his leave. She very nearly brings the bird to show him but thinks better of it at the last moment, for as much as she desires the lieutenant to comfort her, she desires even more for her father to believe that she has obeyed him and disposed of the body. So she takes the empty cage down from its hook and carries that instead. She times her steps that she might meet the lieutenant in the front hall or the little sitting room or perhaps the dim parlor beyond it as he exits her father’s office. Surely enough, her strategy works.

“Julia!” he calls from the shadows. “Are you taking your friend out for some fresh air?”

She stops, lifts the cage that he may see it more clearly from where he stands, and gives him a look composed of knitted eyebrows and woe.

“My goodness,” says the lieutenant. “He’s flown the coop!”

“Worse,” says Julia.

“Worse?”

“He’s passed.”

“No.” He rushes to her side.

“Yes.”

“When?”

“Just this morning.”

He takes the cage from her, and although it weighs nothing it is as if he is lifting a considerable burden.

“Lieutenant Grant...”

“Ulysses. Please.”

“Ulysses.”

He gives the empty cage an appraising look. “What has become of the body?”

“Upstairs.” She sniffs a little. “In my room.”

He studies her face. Her eyes are clear and her cheeks are pale and there is no particular sign that she has been crying, yet the overall impression that she gives is one of weariness and grief. He gives her a kindly smile and indicates the way upstairs with a tilt of his head. “Perhaps you could fetch him. We ought to be attending to the obsequies.”

She leaves him holding the cage and dashes up the stairs, her expression just a shade or two brighter than she would desire it to be in a world any less perfect than this.

He asks her to wait a bit while he takes the cage to the barn and sees about one thing or another. In the yard he finds the black stable boy and inquires as to the availability of a saw and a hammer and some little nails. Also a scrap or two of lumber. The boy advises him that although the man who does carpentry has gone to town and left his toolshed locked up, he knows where the key is hidden. His manner suggests that he knows the plantation’s every last secret, not just this one, and Grant suspects that he might. Children, regardless of their color, always know secrets.

The boy leads him around behind the toolshed but has second thoughts at the last moment. Is Grant to be trusted? There could be grave consequences otherwise. The lieutenant assures him that he will leave everything—including their secret—intact and in good order. The boy, satisfied or at least placated, scrambles around to the back of the shed and prizes away a loose board to reveal the key.

There is lumber inside the shed, white pine by the look of it, sawn thin and cut for clapboards. Its grain is straight and its lengths are without bending or warpage. He shall need only a bit. He measures out his work and scribes a few lines and saws the pieces off clean, and then he fits them together by hand as a trial. He frowns in satisfaction and makes adjustments here and there with a plane, a file, a sanding block. It takes no time at all. He goes on to prepare a flat lid for the box with a shallow rim around its edge, fitting closely but not too close. A less thoughtful individual might have resolved simply to nail the top on once the bird had been gotten inside, but that would never do.

A little jar of yellow paint on a high dim shelf catches his eye, its spilled traces glowing like the yolk of an egg. The contents prove nearly dried-up, but a splash of turpentine remedies that. He finds a scrap of wood to stir it and it yields up a thin mixture that gives the wood a faint yellow sheen more than paints it. But it dries rapidly, which is in its favor. He leaves the box and the lid to finish drying on a crate just inside the barn door and he sends the boy to fetch him back a spade, along with a Holy Bible if he can find one.

He seems to recall that the book of Matthew has something to say about birds, but when he finds the text it proves to be anything but complimentary as to their value. He chooses a psalm instead. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” He has heard that one read at a funeral or two, and he will live to hear it read at many more.

The boy assumes that he is to be charged with digging the grave, but Grant releases him to go about his business. He and Julia choose a sunny spot in the flower garden, just at the foot of a trellis that supports an ancient climbing rose, and he digs the hole. In the shade of the porch they arrange the body in its little yellow coffin and close the lid.

“Tell me, Ulysses,” she says as she stands before the climbing rose, the box in her hands. “Are you merely humoring me?”

“Never.”

“I mean, Father says...”

He touches her wrist. “What does your heart say?”

“Oh, Ulysses.”

“This is not for your father, Julia. It’s not even for Birdie, or not entirely. It’s for you.” He kneels and takes the box and sets it into the grave and covers it. The mound is hardly larger than his hand. The bird is gone and yet it shall be here forever. A yellow bird in a yellow box beneath a red, red rose.

He straightens up and rubs the dirt from his hands with a kerchief, and then he finds the psalm and reads it aloud. He does not linger over any of it, and when he is finished he closes the Bible like any utilitarian thing that has served its purpose. Like the spade, like the box, like his muddied handkerchief. He glances up when he is done and through the front window he makes out the silhouette of the colonel himself, paused and watching. He waits an instant in a kind of silent defiance before he looks away for good.

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