Quick. Name a Civil War novel besides Gone with the Wind (and arguably Cold Mountain)that focuses primarily on the home front. There aren’t many. Being a Civil War buff, I was pleased to discover Carolyn P. Schriber’s Damned Yankee: The Story of a Marriage (Katzenhaus Books, 2014).
Jonathan Grenville is Boston born and raised. Though he married Susan—a southern girl—and lives in Charleston for two decades, heated pre-war rhetoric labels him a “damned Yankee.” And his sympathies are clearly with the North. He believes in the Federal government. He is opposed to slavery on moral grounds (and puts his money where his mouth is by freeing his slaves two years before the Emancipation Proclamation).
But Jonathan knows the war will make it difficult to protect his wife and children. He envisions a separate peace, where he can live without suffering the turmoil of war. And though he has some success, the effects of war permeate everyday life. His family will not escape the consequences.
Conflict between Jonathan and Susan echo the cultural conflict between North and South (as well as foreshadow gender arguments yet to come). When Jonathan wants to move the family to a farm, away from the questionable benefits of slavery, the heated argument zips like a Minie ball, from a woman’s ornamental role in society and the debilitating effects of slavery on self-reliance, to the meaning of marriage. Neither of the protagonists has all of the answers. Both are sullen at times. Good—the novel is more realistic for that.
The novel isn’t perfect. Early dialog suffers from information overload and thematic anachronism. Some slave vernacular struck me as forced. These are minor quibbles. What Schriber has done is present a realistic, well-researched Civil War novel that derives its tension from domestic conflict, echoing and explicating the greater conflict without resorting to battle scenes. The author excels at portraying the flaws and failings of otherwise good people, as well as the frailty (and ultimately, the strength) of a marriage based on partnership. Novels are about people, and the author’s portrayal of a house divided is compelling. I was completely invested in the story of the Grenville family, and highly recommend the book. (Four stars out of five)