Mr. Hewitt has attempted an historical novel set in the American Civil War period; the main characters, Fairfax and Cassandra Cole, reside in Huntsville, Alabama.
Fairfax Cole, a wealthy young graduate of West Point, has married a young belle from Virginia and brought her to Huntsville to start their lives together. Cassandra has abolitionist tendencies; when her father-in-law presents the newly married couple with a wedding gift of two slaves, Cassandra insists that her new husband free the slaves and employ them as hired servants. The couple lives about ten years in our fair city of Huntsville. When the war begins, Fairfax becomes a major in the Confederate Army.
Early in the war, Fairfax is ordered by General P. T. Beauregard to assume the identity of a recently captured US Army officer, Major Wiley, whose orders were to report to the war offices in Washington, D.C. Amazingly, Fairfax apparently resembles Wiley enough to be his twin. Reluctantly, after some grueling indoctrination and surgery on his earlobe to more closely resemble the captive, whose ear was clipped by a minié ball, Fairfax infiltrates the war offices without too much trouble.
I don’t buy it. It seems incredible to me that a young man, born and bred in the Deep South, could ever pass as a Pennsylvania man. Hewitt goes to a lot of trouble to spin a yarn about the protagonist getting tutored on the violin, an instrument at which Wiley was proficient. But he never even broached the subject of the difference in regional accents, which seems an obvious flaw.
Later in the story, commanding officers, subordinates, and even Wiley’s wife are convinced that Fairfax is Wiley. Sorry. I just don’t buy it. The southern man’s accent would have instantly betrayed him.
While her husband is off serving the rebel army, Cassandra meets with the local Huntsville abolitionist group and is afforded the opportunity to become a spy for the United States government. She has some outrageous experiences in her service, most absolutely unbelievable. She is riddled with guilt because she is working against her husband’s Cause. And Fairfax, acting as Major Wiley, starts investigating abolitionist agents in his hometown of Huntsville–including his wife, who is identified only by her code name, Lavender.
Sad to say, Mr. Hewitt’s story is clumsily told. Awkward punctuation distracts from the dialogs. A competent editor should have caught the most blatant spelling and grammatical errors — for example, the term “minié ball” is misspelled (minè) throughout. The writer mentions “Handle’s Messiah,” which certainly would upset the composer, Mr. Handel. On page 151, “chocked up” should be “choked up.” A gentleman speaks with a “tilt” in his voice. Huh? “Least the trackers catch them” should read, “lest the trackers catch them.” The family enjoys a “desert” of pecan pie instead of a dessert. Modern colloquialisms “in his face” and “mentally retarded” don’t fit with the time period. Flashbacks are poorly related, ruining the continuity.
I am no expert on the customs of the civil war, but I’ve learned a bit from my reading and studies. Cassandra, a middle aged woman of some wealth, travels in a stagecoach. One supposes she was dressed in the hoopskirts of the day, which makes it rather unlikely she could perform the gymnastics Mr. Hewitt pens for her: She jumps onto a saddled horse, gallops it to the coach, and then grabs the bridle of the lead horse in the stage coach and gets the 6 hitched horses stampeding so she can accomplish her getaway! Another time she travels alone to the train depot to meet an agent of the US government . . . kills numerous soldiers single-handedly and is never discovered . . . makes a stupid mistake during one of her impersonations, mentioning her husband . . . slays soldiers in her own home and drags 4 bodies in a cart to the outskirts of town, including that of her butler — but no one ever shows up at her home to investigate. How did she hide all that blood? How did no one recognize her butler? Where did this genteel woman learn to shoot all the different firearms she wielded?
Mr. Hewitt’s treatment of a love scene between the two is gross and explicit. At one point when Fairfax’s identity is in question, the wife of the Yankee officer claim examines the rebel’s private parts, supposedly to make a determination of his identity. Ewww!
There were a couple more things that didn’t ring true in the story, such as a freedman’s village south of Huntsville and a female secretary in the US army offices. Just more instances of things that raised my eyebrows.
Another oddity in the style of the writing: the author writes that a female servant uses “a subservient falsetto” when she is under stress, and Mrs. Cole reprimands her for this mannerism. This brings to mind a scene from the movie, Gone with the Wind; that type of stereotype does not bear repeating.
The author includes some war-time trivia which, though interesting, is of questionable taste — like graphic description of hogs feeding on the corpses after the battle of Gettysburg.
Life goes on at the Huntsville home after the war ends. And though Fairfax has no apparent employment, the Coles are living in their home with their original furniture intact and lots of meat and delicacies, with paid servants — even though General Ormsby had headquartered in that home. These facts just don’t jive with my impressions of life in Huntsville as recorded in contemporary diaries from Huntsville.
So . . . my recommendation would be to skip this one if you are looking for a good civil war story with Huntsville as a backdrop.
Reviewed by Kathi Paul