Heart of a Dove by Abbie Williams

heart of a doveLorissa Blake is a young lady old beyond her years. Sold into prostitution at the age of fifteen after losing her entire family to war and sickness, she bears witness to desperation and despair each night she is forced to sell her body. Learning to play the part of Ginny Hossiter’s star whore, Lila, may have saved Lorissa from starvation on the streets, but it has come at a high price, and she has lost all hope of ever being free and happy again.

The monotony of her existence is unexpectedly broken one night when a band of former Confederate soldiers from Tennessee pays a visit to the saloon. Angus Warfield, the patriarch of the group, is horrified to discover a personal connection to Lorissa and immediately facilitates her escape, despite threats of vengeance from Ginny. Lorissa finds herself journeying north with Angus and his companions, Boyd, Sawyer, and Malcolm – each having also experienced unbearable loss at the hands of the War- as they head to Minnesota to take advantage of the Homestead Act. Life on the trail exceeds all expectations for Lorissa, as she quickly forms deep bonds with her new makeshift family and allows herself to feel joy once again; but this peace is not to last, as they soon discover they are being pursued by a deranged madman hell-bent on revenge.

There is so much to love about this book, I don’t know where to begin. I was sucked in from the very first page and ended up reading it multiple times. The characterizations are so convincing; I could immediately relate to the characters because their mannerisms, speech, and behaviors were so similar to people I have known in real life. Being a native Tennessean myself, I can say that Williams nailed the depictions of Angus, Boyd, Sawyer, and especially Malcolm, who brought back memories of two of my own cousins when they were young men.

Likewise, I have never been to the Midwest, and yet the vivid descriptions of the sprawling, unchanging prairies and the wide open skies made me feel like I was there. I could practically feel the slow bumping of the wooden wagon beneath me, and I could hear the grass moving and sliding beneath the wheels and the gentle noises of the horses as the team slowly trundled their way across the landscape. The deep love of horses conveyed through Lorissa and Sawyer inspired a similar interest in me, and spurred me to invite myself over to an acquaintance’s farm so I could spend a little time with her horses and nuzzle a few soft noses myself.

One of my favorite scenes was when Lorissa’s group encounters another family traveling north, and excited for the company, they have an impromptu dinner party that evening. The imagery was beautiful: an old farm table sitting in the middle of the vast prairie, set with tin plates and cups of lemonade, a baby in a basket on the ground being rocked by her mother’s foot, faces softly lit by the glowing lanterns, all set against the backdrop of a brilliant sunset. Later that evening, Boyd plays his fiddle around the campfire and thousands of lightning bugs blink against the night sky. It was a gorgeous scene and I longed to be there myself.

The heart of the story, of course, is the blooming love between Lorissa and one of her companions. I won’t go into detail about who she falls in love with, so as not to give too much away, but their passion for each other is gripping, and I was on the edge of my seat while they were stealing kisses behind the wagon and sneaking away from camp after dark. This story stands out from other romances in the sense that there is considerable depth to the characters, and the build-up to the love affair is slow and sweet. I found that deliberate build-up to be very refreshing, and it leant a further sense of honesty to the relationship because it allowed time for both the reader and the characters to actually build connections, which doesn’t happen when they instantly jump into bed together.

There are a few typos (perhaps I have an early copy?) and an occasional awkwardness in the dialogue between Lorissa and her beau, but the compelling nature of the narrative prevents them from being a distraction. This book has a lot to offer fans of historical fiction who also enjoy a strong love story. The romance will suck you in and leave you giddy for days (the hallmark of any good love story, in my opinion). This is the first in a trilogy, and I look forward to reading the next book, Soul of a Crow, coming out later this year.

P.S. This book won the 2015 Gold Medal for Romance at the Independent Publishers Book Awards. Congratulations, Abbie!!

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The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War by Howard Bahr

I have a new favorite book. And as is typical of my favorites, it must come with a disclaimer for those of you who don’t like to be pushed out of your comfort zone: it is heartbreaking, beautiful, and tragic.

The main story of this novel only spans the 48 hour period before and after the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee. Bushrod Carter is a college educated man and seasoned veteran of the Civil War at age 26; he’s been actively fighting for the Confederacy since the war began in 1861. His two childhood best friends, Jack Bishop and Virgil C. Johnson, have been with him for the past 3 years, and all have managed to walk out of each battle unharmed. Through a series of flashbacks throughout the book, we see the history of the three men, what they were like as children, certain events that shaped their outlooks, and mostly, how deeply they care about and love each other as brothers.

The strain of the prolonged fighting has taken its toll on most of the men by the time they approach Franklin and there seems to be a blanketing sense of hopelessness about the troops. Bushrod has adopted a coping mechanism in which he retreats into his “Other” self whenever he goes into battle or when faced with the horrible aftermath. He refers to the dead as the “Departed” and treats them reverently, always asking for permission to take their clothing or accoutrements and then thanking them for it. The men are exhausted and Bushrod is particularly struggling because each time he falls asleep (even when he’s standing upright) he is plagued with dreams in which Jack and Virgil C. are dead.

The foreshadowing is heavy (but well done) and it is clear from the very beginning that there will not be a happy ending. And if you know anything about the Civil War, you know that the Confederates were basically massacred during the brief (but extremely bloody) battle at Franklin. The men obviously know that they don’t stand a chance, but line up and prepare to march into battle nonetheless. Bushrod despises killing and is trembling so severely that he cannot load his musket. Jack is at his side and loads it for him.

Carnton Plantation

Meanwhile, John McGavock has been informed that the Confederacy will be using his home, Carnton Plantation, as a field hospital. He and his wife, Carrie McGavock, stoically accept their fate and begin readying themselves and the house for the wounded. (Carrie McGavock is the central character in Robert Hicks’ Widow of the South, but she plays a secondary role in this novel. I am a fan of Widow, so it was interesting for me to see her from a different perspective.) Carrie’s young cousin, Anna Hereford, is also present on one of her yearly visits and in an unexpected twist of fate, finds herself thrust into the job of field nurse. After the battle, a wounded Bushrod is carried into Carnton and left at the foot of the stairs, and it is here that he meets Anna. They are from very different backgrounds and Anna blatantly states that under different circumstances, she would have never given him the time of day. As it stands, however, at this precise moment, they are perfectly attuned, each making the other whole during the most trying time of their lives. 

Everything I’ve said so far is really just the beginning, the relationship that develops between Bushrod and Anna is the heart of the story, but there is so much more happening simultaneously. The antagonist of the novel is a conscripted soldier named Simon Rope who had a run-in with Bushrod and his friends several weeks prior and who means to take revenge on them all. Also, Anna has been instructed to watch over and protect the McGavock children, Hattie and Winder, who are locked in the only room of the house that is not serving as a hospital, while also helping take care of the soldiers. I won’t go into any further detail regarding those storylines so as not to give too much away.

Back porch of Carnton

 

I absolutely love this book. I am amazed that such a small and concise story can have such a strong emotional impact. Bahr captures the irony and contradiction of the war perfectly, and his writing is downright poetry. The battle itself is not described, but the grounds, atmosphere, and attitudes of those involved are vividly brought to life. I have visited the Carnton Plantation, so I could clearly envision the surgeon’s table and the bloodstained floors, the hallway clogged with dead and dying men, the beautiful porch with the sky blue ceiling on which dead famous generals were laid out.

Even though I was dying to find out what happened next, I found myself going back and re-reading paragraphs because they were just so beautiful. The grisly scenes of death and destruction are punctuated by tender moments of unfettered love and compassion and agonizingly poignant writing. There is a lot of symbolism and many references to animals, which I found particularly moving. There is a scene involving a wasp that is trapped in the McGavock house amongst the wounded men that broke my heart. Another one of my favorite paragraphs that I read over and over is this one between Bushrod and Anna:

She turned then, and all at once they were standing so close that she had to tilt up her face to look at him. “Give me your hand,” she said. “Please.” So he put out his right hand, palm up, and Anna settled her own in it like a bird alighting. Bushrod thought of when he was a boy and sometimes a chimney swift would come in through the hearth; when that happened, he would always be the one to catch it, he loved to wrap his hand around it and feel the softness and the little hammer of the swift beating heart. Outside he would open his hand; for an instant the bird would lie blinking in his palm, then flicker away so fast he could never find it in the sky. He half-expected Anna’s hand to do the same, but it lay still, and he closed his own around it.

 I feel like I’m doing a terrible job expressing how moving this novel is. The story is gripping, intense, sad, funny, and thought-provoking all at once. The hook doesn’t fully sink in until the battle begins (about 75 pages in), but once it does you will not be able to put it down. Bushrod is a very interesting character and I savored every single second I had with him. The novel is divided into several parts and at the beginning of each part, Bahr includes actual lines from Bushrod’s Commonplace Book, a letter to his mother, and even faculty minutes from the time he and Jack were suspended from the University of Mississippi in 1859 for drunken, unruly behavior; all of which makes him that much more realistic. It is very obvious that the author loved and respected these characters and I think he did a wonderful job of paying homage to the sacrifice that they all made. 

The Black Flower is a heavy, bittersweet and heartbreaking read. Even though I knew how it was going to end, I still felt like I had been punched in the gut when the time came. I cried and was left with a hollow feeling for a few days afterwards, but it was completely worth it. My favorite novels are the ones that evoke sincere emotion; this one has major emotional impact and the awe-inspiring, heartfelt writing is icing on the cake. Even if you don’t typically like Civil War novels, I think you will be blown away by this book. I borrowed it from the library, but will be purchasing my own copy because I want it on hand for whenever I get the urge to go back to certain passages, not to mention numerous re-reads in the future. Bahr has two other Civil War novels, The Year of Jubilo and The Judas Field, which I look forward to reading.