This coming-of-age story, set just before and during the American Civil War, is historical fiction at its best. Bel and Lawrence are cousins, raised in a rich family in Vermont. But their wealth cannot protect them from the realities of slavery and the war. Lawrence enlists and discovers that war really is hell, but learns to cope. Bel remains at home, living a pampered life, one she grows to resent after meeting Louis, a handsome young Canadian who joins up to fight for the North.
Soon she begins to rebel against her mother. When her aunt and uncle give her a chance for freedom, she takes it, even if it means nursing in Washington. There she too learns the realities of war, made worse when she must nurse her cousin after he is badly injured. Louis' presence does mitigate the circumstances somewhat and they begin to snatch moments of privacy.
As in so many historical novels, romance does have a role in this one. Bel is a worthy heroine, attractive and intelligent, yet also impulsive and far from perfect. Louis is a little more perfect, yet still so engaging that it is difficult to fault the author for creating him thus. Their developing relationship adds a hopeful touch to a novel so centred on war.
Ms. Hummel has crafted a heart-wrenching tale of love, friendship, family secrets and war. Her carefully chosen words draw images in the mind of the reader, effectively bringing the era to life, while her characters are both appealing and true to the period. The complicated family relationships add an extra touch of realism. My only quibble was that the sections detailing life in the trenches sometimes dominated the action for a little too long.
Highly recommended for both its historical atmosphere and rivetting storyline.
© Teresa Basinski Eckford 2003
This review first appeared in the August 2003 issue of The Historical Novels Review.