Title: A Separate Country
Author: Robert Hicks
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
# of Pages: 432
This review is based on an advanced reader's copy.
I did not finish reading this book.
Set in New Orleans in the years after the Civil War, A Separate Country is based on the incredible life of John Bell Hood, arguably one of the most controversial generals of the Confederate Army--and one of its most tragic figures. Robert E. Lee promoted him to major general after the Battle of Antietam. But the Civil War would mark him forever. At Gettysburg, he lost the use of his left arm. At the Battle of Chickamauga, his right leg was amputated. Starting fresh after the war, he married Anna Marie Hennen and fathered 11 children with her, including three sets of twins. But fate had other plans. Crippled by his war wounds and defeat, ravaged by financial misfortune, Hood had one last foe to battle: Yellow Fever. A Separate Country is the heartrending story of a decent and good man who struggled with his inability to admit his failures-and the story of those who taught him to love, and to be loved, and transformed him.
Before I get into my review of the story, can I just say how tired I am of book covers with people's heads cut off? This seems to be the trend in historical fiction, particularly. Often there will be a woman's gorgeous dress shown, sometimes a silhouette or a profile shot. But never, ever her entire face. It was cool the first few times, I admit but now... there are far too many. For example, Phillippa Gregory, Elizabeth Chadwick, Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, Alice Munro... all these authors have books out recently (or new editions of older books) in which women's (sometimes men's) bodies are shown, but hardly ever the heads. Why? Is this supposed to be interesting? Is it mysterious? Does it lead more people to pick up the book and browse? I don't get it, really. Anyone else- thoughts?
Ok, that's my rant on book covers.
I don't know quite how to review this book. Have you ever read a book and, while reading it, really enjoyed the setting and the language, but just didn't enjoy the plot at all? That was my reaction to this book. I think Robert Hicks evoked New Orleans after the Civil War magnificently- you can almost feel how humid and sticky it is. And while I've never been to New Orleans before, the atmosphere he creates of southern charm with a faint whiff of thievery and crookedness seems right on target with what I've heard about the city. His ability to do this speaks volumes about his writing ability- creating such a believable setting takes a lot of work.
But something about this book just didn't jive for me. It reads as though it should be historical fiction, but it seems much more mystical and dream sequence-like to me. I am not sure how factual the book is supposed to be (as its two main characters were real), but I think the majority of the book must have been made up. While I'm fine with reading fiction about real people, this book veers a bit too far off the path for me. I also felt a bit lost with the plot, I admit. It seems like there was a great deal of build-up for the first 250 pages of the book or so, but I had no idea where it was all leading. And in the muggy, pressing heat of New Orleans before air conditioning, I was just starting to get fussy and crabby and wanting to get to the end. So- another point to Hicks for making his setting so successfully that it was beginning to affect my reading mood!
I own Hicks' other book, The Widow of the South, though I haven't read it yet. After reading A Separate Country, I am not sure if I feel more or less compelled to pick up Widow of the South. It is also a Civil War-era book that takes place in the Deep South. I think I will probably give it a go. I enjoyed Hicks' writing style, I just didn't understand the plot of this book. But maybe I will understand Widow of the South.
If you are one who enjoys American historical fiction, especially the type with a dash of intrigue and mystery thrown in, then I think you'd enjoy this book. It starts really strongly, and then sags a bit in the middle, but I think it portrays New Orleans and the South in the Reconstruction era really well.
On a more general and less book-review-related note, I am generally not one for American historical fiction books. The Civil War, though, always catches my interest because I think it's probably the only part of American history that is taught in widely varying ways, depending on where you go to school. Growing up in the Land of Lincoln, I certainly get the Yankee version of the story about the Emancipation Proclamation, the quest to free slaves and the necessity of keeping our country whole. I am sure people in New Orleans learn it differently, probably focusing more on states' rights and the dependence of the local economy on slavery. I am not sure, though- I don't think there are any books written on the variety of teaching theories for the Civil War, sadly!