Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Laird Hunt's new novel Neverhome, following the success of Kind One, a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award, delves into a first-person narrative of a woman named Ash Thompson from Indiana, who goes to fight in the Civil War for the Union Army disguised as a man. Anytime a writer attempts a novel about the Civil War, they fall into the shadow of Faulkner, and the greatest work of Southern literature, Absalom! Absalom! Hunt's text, though, succeeds at what it attempts, and at one point, through Ash, tells us why he wished to write a reclamation narrative: "But there aren't any women holding guns in this pile of books I have. In these stories women are saints and angels and men are courageous noble folk and everything they do gets done nice and quick and nothing smells like blood."
Blood, or miscegenation, in Eric Sundquist's important study Faulkner: A House Divided, is the central problem of the South. The white male patriarchy attempted to keep their hold on an innocent nostalgia of the aristocracy and their plantation system. The frontier narrative and Manifest Destiny acted as ways for white men to write history as they posited it, spreading freedom and democracy across the land of America when in fact the brutal reality of slavery, human as capital, and the genocide committed against Native Americans spoke as ghostly facts written underneath the blood-ridden soil. The Southern white male's economic labor force and social myth were questioned, and thus, they retaliated by upholding their racial superiority, while clinging ever closer to the domestic household and the "purity" of the Southern white woman.
Ash, observing the South as she marches, reflects on the Cavalier myth, but essentially, almost unconsciously comes to the same conclusion as Sundquist: "It was those horseman, riding low, pistols at the ready, sabers up. They looked like knights. Like it wasn't powder black on their faces they were wearing but grim ladies' scarves on their sleeves." Indeed, the hidden shadow of slavery sometimes referred to in Faulkner as a "black balloon face" is a powder, only to reveal their idolization of the pure white Southern woman. The myth, at the turn of the twentieth century, would demonize African American men for destroying the so-called purity of the home symbolized in the lady of the house.
A moment of reclaiming a lost and forgotten history from the dominant patriarchal narrative of history, one of the best moments in the novel, occurs when Ash and a group of infantrymen are taken prisoner by a band of Confederate soldiers who turn out to be, more or less, vigilantes. Ash finds a calico dress in the closet she changes into, and, at her captors unawares, kills them and saves the other infantry. At one point in reflection, after killing the soldiers, she observes, "They were thinking about getting candied up as rebels and being shot for deserters and when I said this their eyes went wide and they nodded at the idea of looking like more than spare valises in the closet in the story to be told." Gender hierarchy is inverted to make the men the closet of the story, and the valise, Keat's urn that exists as Caddy in The Sound and the Fury, becomes the protagonist-soldier-hero of the text.
Further, Ash's earlier divergence from the marching Union army to save a girl who had ripped her chemise dress up in a tree reminds one of Faulkner's origin for The Sound and the Fury: the girl up a tree with muddy drawers, looking into her grandmother's funeral as her three brothers look up at her. In Hunt's narrative though, there are men standing by, but a woman has also come to help another, rather than the alternative: the placated, haunted image of the Southern family doomed to perpetual destruction in the aftermath of what was, what is, and what will persist in being.
Hunt's stylistic choice of short, minimal sentences can be too terse and mythic at times, thus not opening a lyrical or otherwise detailed space in order to better contextualize readers, as Hilary Mantel has done brilliantly with Thomas Cromwell. Neverhome, though, is a vibrant, gripping, and refreshing Civil War narrative, one that opens a space, or gap, to further see aspects of American history that had been forgotten.
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Little, Brown and Company