A review of Laird Hunt’s new novel that introduces us to the alluring Ash Thompson, a woman who leaves home to fight in the Civil War.
There can only be one Gone With The Wind. That’s partially why Neverhome is a shining new addition to the Civil War canon. Laird Hunt does not try to sculpt a text that is painfully flowery or hopelessly romantic or one that goes overboard with the hoop skirts. Instead, his heroine Ash Thompson is a tragically flawed, but alluring, character who pulls us into her story of survival during the Civil War. We march alongside her in 1862 as she barrels her way through battle, feel the sharp swoosh of bullets slicing past, the kicks from prison guards and the empty throb of hunger.
For a myriad of murky reasons, Ash joins the Union Army as a man. “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic,” Ash explains. She assumes the role of the man in her marriage and her husband is left home to mind their farm. Ash easily slips into her masculine persona, leaving us to guess how she hides the daily binding of breasts and deceiving of comrades. Her travels bring her from booming, smoking battlefields, to the day to day drudgery of camp life, a stint in prison and the lunatic house. She learns to fire at men mere feet away, close enough she can see into the blue eyes of the boys she shoots.
I think if I had walked straight off the farm and into that work I would have wept at the shock. But the weeks and months had stretched me out into it. You stand in a line in your bright blues with your filthy face and your lice and all the dead you now know and get shot at regular, your thinking takes a change. You get to where you can do things you couldn’t have dreamed up the outline of before.”
During her time away, Ash has a number of experiences that dispel any fear of monotony from constant battle. Trouble seems attracted to her and for the most part she comes out triumphant. She kills a band of unruly outlaws, fights off the advances of women left lonely without their men and inspires the song “Gallant Ash.” Of course, Ash is the one relating these stories, and she has a lying streak. Her mind swirls between bullet-riddled reality and memories of a happy childhood before her mother’s death. The more she sees, the greater her stories grow. Still, the lying and wild stories humanize her character, who often seems otherworldly because she always comes out swinging. Laird also uses this mechanism to complicate what has the potential to be a simple survival narrative. Ash always maintains that she is fearless in the face of battle, but her gradual unraveling is evident as her stories progress.
Hunt’s writing is beautiful. There is a lyrical lilt to Ash’s words that adds to the layers of her textured character. She enjoys a “long, syrupy sleep,” “tears came up their tunnels,” a boy “turned the color of the freshest autumn apple,” teeth are “chattering hard enough to crack hickory nuts,” “rainbows burst to bloody bits,” and a woman dresses in “rag skirts with a calico swaddle in each of her strong arms.”
Although Ash weaves a tale that is frequently hard to fathom, the story itself is oddly triumphant. Hunt’s adept ability to weave the naked desperation of humanity at war in the troubled tale of a fearless but frightened woman soldier is astounding.