Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Separate Country by Robert Hicks

This book is a follow-up for a character in Hicks' earlier novel, The Widow of the South," which I loved. A minor character in the previous book, Eli, who lost his family in Franklin, TN, during the Civil War battle there has made his way to New Orleans. However, he isn't really the main character in this story either. He's more of a narrator.

The story is about Gen'l. John Bell Hood, CSA, his wife and oldest daughter, and his wife's childhood friends, a dwarf, a priest, and a colored man who appears white. Then there are Eli and his girlfriend, a prostitute. Actually New Orleans is as much a character in the book as any of these people and that's what drew me in and held me. Nineteenth century New Orleans was a fascinating place that it was fun to learn about. Its mystery reminded me of Savannah, GA, as depicted in The Garden of Good and Evil.

The book is told in alternating chapters by Hood, his wife, and Eli Griffin. As in The Widow of the South, this is an effective way to tell the story. Telling it just from the point of view of one of them would be highly unsatisfactory. However, this book is still confusing and just plain strange. It's also too long. Hicks dwells on Hood's guilt about the men who died in the charge he ordered at the battle in Franklin, TN, and how he changes from a crippled military man trying to retain his discipline and bearing in the face of physical disability and the damage to his reputation into a man who loves his wife and family, doesn't care about money or standing in the community, and selflessly gives of himself and his income to help people struck down by yellow fever.

His wife is a Creole born in New Orleans. Her childhood experiences make up one of the best parts of the book. Eli is just learning about the city and its people and he works in an ice factory, so he has a completely different point of view.

I liked the book and yet I didn't like it. I was mesmerized by it, couldn't put it down, and yet finished it unsatisfied. Despite all the internalizing by the main characters, I don't really know why they did what they did. I must admit I'll be thinking about this one for a while but more than that I cannot say.

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