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As they lay dying

Published January 22, 2006


By Robert Hicks

Warner Books, $24.95, 426 pp


As 21st century Americans, most of us see war at great distance, as tiny figures on our television screens, mug shots inside our newspapers, abstract numbers in official announcements.

Carrie McGavock had no such luxury. The Civil War literally marched right up to her door and came inside.

In his first novel, The Widow of the South, Robert Hicks creates a fever-dream fictional version of Carrie's story. She was a real woman, a reclusive wife and mother who became famous when she created a private cemetery on her family's land in Tennessee for almost 1,500 Confederate soldiers killed at the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, scant months before the end of the war.

That horrific five-hour battle left more than 9,000 casualties and nearly destroyed the small town of Franklin. Carrie McGavock's home, the Carnton plantation, was commandeered as a hospital. Four dead generals were laid out on her back porch, and an enormous pile of amputated limbs rose outside her windows where the surgeons tossed them as they sawed them off. But that is only the beginning of the story.

Hicks, a music publisher and manager in Nashville and passionate amateur historian, brings a wealth of knowledge about the Civil War and its aftermath to this book.

But The Widow of the South is no conventional historical novel, nor a conventional romance, although Carrie falls into a strange sort of love with Sgt. Zachariah Cashwell, one of the survivors of the battle whom she helps to nurse.

Hicks focuses on bringing to life his characters' emotional responses to the war and to how their lives are shattered by it.

Carrie was obsessed with the dead long before the Battle of Franklin. The deaths of three of her five young children had left her deeply depressed, and she rarely left her home.

In a strange way, the flood of dying and terribly injured soldiers that fills Carnton after the battle brings her back to life as she throws herself into caring for them.

So passionate does she become about honoring their sacrifice that, several years later, when a neighbor announces he will plow up and plant a field he owns where more than a thousand of them were buried, she takes on the task of overseeing their reburial, standing over each opened grave with her notebook to record the corpse's name and unit before he is moved.

Around the framework of Carrie's public story - she became known across the country for her efforts - Hicks weaves wrenching, often heartbreaking personal stories, not only Carrie's but those of her devoted husband, the slave woman who is her lifelong best friend, a boy the McGavocks adopt after the war's aftershocks leave him homeless, and the always surprising Zachariah, a life force amid the novel's bleakness.

Hicks' images are often powerful, as when one soldier describes the battlefield: "I realized that the cracking sound I'd been hearing was not the sound of balls hitting the gin house. I looked up once after being sprayed by splinters, and realized the balls made a thump-thump sound against the wood slats. The cracking sound came from the opposite direction, out on the field. The dead and dying were packed so tightly that men were charging right over them, shattering legs, arms, and ribs. It was the sound of bones snapping."

By shifting point of view in each chapter, Hicks opens windows into the experiences of soldiers and their survivors, former slaves and their onetime owners, all struggling to make sense of a world that will never be the same.

Carrie asks, "All this death and dying. How is it possible to tell the story of one's life entirely with reference to death?" The Widow of the South answers the question with moving grace.

- Colette Bancroft is a Times staff writer.

[Last modified January 21, 2006, 10:26:03]

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