The story of Sarah Emma Edmonds, who masqueraded as a man named Frank Thompson during the Civil War. Among her many adventures, she was a nurse on the battlefield and a spy for the Union Army, and was captured by (and escaped from) the Confederates. The novel is narrated by Sarah, offering readers an in-depth look not only at the Civil War but also at her journey to self-discovery as she grapples with living a lie and falling in love with one of her fellow soldiers.
3 1/2 stars
This review is of an ARC received from NetGalley and Amulet Books/ABRAMS. You can get a copy of your own on September 1, 2012.
I picked this one up on a whim from NetGalley, because I really do adore historical fiction. Typically I don’t read Civil War stuff, and I thought it would be a good change. It struck me as something akin to those “Dear America” books I read as a child, so why not, right?
However, straight from the get go, I could see problems with this book emerging. The narrator comes off as stiff and emotionless. The First Battle of Bull Run is also steamrolled right through–as is everything else until about the second half of the book. I was further annoyed because The First Battle of Bull Run was so flippantly run through, and then we get a whole long chapter about how Sarah/Frank was falling head over heels with Jerome to the point where she tells him he can’t ask his sweetheart at home to marry him. This was also the chapter we MET Jerome. I wasn’t even 70 pages in.
The highlights of this book, though, were in the history. Moss does a spectacular job describing what it’s like to be a soldier in battle, seeing what you see and doing what you do. Both her descriptions of the physical scene and the descriptions of the effects of that it had on Sarah/Frank were beautifully done.
The great thing about Sarah/Frank is that she really was EVERYWHERE. She signs up right at the beginning of the war, right before the First Battle of Bull Run. She works as a nurse, a postmaster general, a spy and a general’s orderly. The descriptions of seeing someone leg amputated, receiving gifts from families whom she had informed has lost their son/husband/father, inside the Confederate camps and inside the general’s tent were fantastic. None of these facts had to be invented to really give you a wide view of the war, because Sarah/Frank really did those things in real life.
Thankfully, after the first half of the novel, someone puts the brakes on. Sure, there are a lot of gaps in time, but that’s to be expected because that always happens in historical fiction when they’re trying to give you all the exciting bits. Sarah/Frank’s “romance” bits with Jerome and then James were still a constant thorn in my side, since there always seemed to be a severe disconnect between Sarah thoughts and Frank thoughts. Still, James acts more like a friend and Jerome ends up getting captured and paroled (therefore gone from the picture for a bit) and we get to focus on the battles and the camp life.
The part in which Sarah/Frank “leaves” the Army also seemed a little washed over. I think it was supposed to have an impact, but it didn’t. All of the sudden, I was just reading and saying, “What? What?” No preamble. Almost no reaction. She just … moves on.
All and all, this book was separated into a bunch of halves. You have the first half of the book and the second half of the book. You have Sarah/Frank’s personal narration and then you have narration about the war. The first half of the book was a crazy ride that really needed to be fleshed out more, while the second half of the book was a pretty awesome description fest. Sarah/Frank as a narrator seemed to be really lacking in connection with me, yet her description of the war was fantastic.
To be honest, I’m rather used to this in historical fiction. It is really hard to write a compelling character while trying to fit in THIS MUCH history. I understand that. So I sort of stopped trying to connect with Sarah/Frank and just let myself go along for the ride. Moss’s descriptions of the war were compelling enough to make me okay with that. Still, if you’re looking for a real feminist story, I’d look somewhere else. I feel like I could give this book to my brother to read and he’d love it, because all he’d care about are the battle scenes.