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19 February 2015

Laird Hunt’s Neverhome: the civil war isn’t just something in America’s past

A novel of the American Civil War that combines realism with the powerful folklore surrounding defiant women.

By Erica Wagner

Laird Hunt
Chatto & Windus, 246pp, £12.99

Gallant Ash Thompson is a soldier’s soldier. Why “Gallant” Ash? One day, when he was marching with his regiment towards the South, towards the battles that, in the civil war, would decide whether the United States of America would remain united, a girl climbed up a tree to wave the Union men on their way – but her chemise caught on the branches and tore, leaving her bare-breasted. It was Gallant Ash who climbed that tree and gave her his coat to cover her. What his fellow soldiers didn’t know – as they sang the song they made to celebrate his noble deed – was that Ash Thompson saw himself in that girl. For not so long before, Ash had been Constance. She and her husband, Bartholomew, had pulled a living from an Indiana farm until the war broke out. “There was one of us had to look to the farm and one had to go and that was him and that was me.”

And so, as Neverhome begins, Ash sets off to war. Her story, while fiction, is no fantasy: one of the books Laird Hunt acknow­ledges is DeAnne Blanton’s and Lauren M Cook’s They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, in which the authors supply evidence of at least 250 women who took part in the fighting. But one of the strengths of this compelling novel – the first of Hunt’s to be published in the UK, though he is well established in his native US – is its blend of realism with a powerful sense of the folklore around women who defy the expectations of the societies in which they find themselves.

“Penelope gone to the war and Odysseus staying home,” someone says to Constance towards the end of this novel – and indeed, in a way that makes a kind of mirror image of Charles Frazier’s wonderful novel Cold Mountain, Ash/Constance’s journey out to battle and then back home to Bartholomew has the episodic quality of a quest. This is not the novel to read if you are looking for a lecture on the history of the American civil war. Ash’s narration, beautiful but blunt, puts us right in the middle of that terrible conflict that cost America more lives than all other wars the country has fought in put together. Nearly three-quarters of a million soldiers died between 1861 and 1865: 2.5 per cent of the entire American population. (The US population stands today at about 320 million; that would be the equivalent now of eight million dead.)

Ash comes from a world in which death is much more a part of everyday life than it is in the 21st-century west. “Like anyone else, I’d seen plenty of dead,” she says, after her first skirmish, “but never one I had made.” Ash is good with a rifle, good enough to be a sharpshooter, equipped with a new weapon that could kill a man from a good quarter of a mile away. It’s possible to catch glimpses, as you move through this novel, of where Ash and her comrades find themselves – near Sharpsburg, near Petersburg, down in Virginia and around Washington, DC – but that’s not the point. The point is to make vivid the confusion and horror of a landscape destroyed by war.

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And everywhere is the queer horror of the cost of that war. “Here and there you met a body part had broken off acquaintance with its owner. A glove had gone with a hand and a boot with a foot . . . There were dead men sprinkled all around. You would have thought to look at them that they had just got winded and decided to punk down. Have a smoke. Think it through a spell.”

Threaded through Ash’s adventures – which are told with the conviction of a fine novelist who has given himself the voice of a yarn-spinner – are hints of her past. There is the ghost of her powerful, determined mother (a characterisation that is reminiscent of something out of Angela Carter) and the memory of her Bartholomew – a diffident farmer, a beautiful dancer, a man who would pluck the freshest flowers for his beloved wife. But Ash is not just running off to join a noble cause. It becomes clear, in fragments, that she is running away from tragedy, too; a tragedy that will never cease to haunt her.

The civil war isn’t just something in America’s past. This past winter, marchers have filled the streets of the country’s cities, calling for justice on behalf of those unarmed, young black men shot by police. In the US, white people have 13 times the net worth of black people, a gap that has vastly increased since the late 1980s. Ash’s gender, though it’s the hook of this novel, isn’t really the point of the tale. Hunt demonstrates that this was – and is – everyone’s war. Yet when the war is done, Ash reads what historians have written and finds that she has been erased. “In these stories women are saints and angels and men are courageous noble folk and everything they do gets done nice and quick and nothing smells like blood.” But it does smell like blood – still.

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