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Historians estimate as many as 700 women — often disguised as men — fought in the Civil war, motivated by the same values and allegiances as their male counterparts. Now, in a beautiful, spare novel inspired by historical accounts and his own family’s Civil War correspondence, author Laird Hunt brings the story of one brave female soldier to life. Kojo talks to Hunt about the unlikely heroine of his critically acclaimed book, and her odyssey across some of history’s grizzliest battlefields.
- Laird Hunt Author, "Neverhome"
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from the book NEVERHOME by Laird Hunt. Copyright © 2014 by Laird Hunt. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a look at what it means to be a single mom in today's military. But first, history is filled with tales of the heroic generals and grizzly battles that define the American Civil War. But if there's one story that's absent from the history books, it's the role women played on the battlefield, often disguised as men.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe female Civil War soldier seems like a contradiction to the hoop skirted antebellum image we have of females of that era. But historians say up to 750 women fought on both sides of the conflict, often performing heroically in battle. Now, a new novel by author Laird Hunt gives life and voice to one of those unlikely soldiers. In his acclaimed novel, "Neverhome," we follow the fictional odyssey of Constance, an Indiana wife who calls herself Ash and goes to battle because she's stronger than her husband.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a spare work that reads like a diary left behind on a ravaged battlefield. And Laird Hunt is here to share it with us. Laird Hunt, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. LAIRD HUNTThanks for having me.
NNAMDILaird Hunt, he's the author of the novel, "Neverhome." And author of five earlier novels and a collection of short stories. If you have questions or comments for Laird Hunt, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you have stories of your own family members who fought in the Civil War? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Laird, your novel is receiving accolades from around the country for its beautiful, evocative story of a woman who disguises herself as a man and goes to fight in the Civil War.
NNAMDIBut you have six other critically acclaimed books under your belt, including your previous novel, "Kind One," set in the same era. Was it a surprise to you that this one seems to be your breakout work?
HUNTYou know, I think it has a lot to do with the subject matter, with these extraordinary women who actually did this. Who actually chose, for all kinds of reasons, to go to war and fight for their country, whether they were fighting for the north or the south. Because women fought from both the north and the south. And I think it seems to have struck some sort of nerve, and I'm delighted that my fictional heroin, who was inspired by but not based on any of the actual women, is appealing to people.
NNAMDIIt's struck a huge response. I think many people have an image of late 19th century women wearing hoop skirts, waving handkerchiefs and holding down the homestead as their men marched off to war. But that was not necessarily the case. How much do we know about women on the battlefield?
HUNTI don't think we know enough. And I think the scholarship is really developing. And there's a lot of excitement around it. DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook, who have -- who wrote this wonderful book, "They Fought Like Demons," are some of the key scholars around this subject matter. And it seems like we continue to discover women who did this. And it's not so easy. This involves a lot of archival work and real sleuthing in history. And it's something that I would like to see the numbers grow higher and higher.
HUNTBecause one has the sense that there were more women than we know who were doing this. And certainly, there were more women who had disguised themselves as men simply to seek opportunity, who didn't necessarily fight in the war. But who were out living these lives that weren't available to them when they were wearing the hoop skirts that you mentioned.
NNAMDIAnd how did they get to wear the uniforms? How did they manage to pass as men? This is a silly question. Didn't they have to pass a physical exam is a physical question -- silly question. Because I know a lot of women who are stronger than I am.
HUNTThat's for sure. I know a number personally, in my case. Yeah, there were a number of factors that made this possible. And one of them was, indeed, the fact that the physical exam during the Civil War was not a standardized thing. And sometimes, it was as minimal as show me your teeth. Maybe tap on them to show that they weren't too loose in the mouth. And pick up that gun over there. Can you heft it up? And if you could do these things, then you were given your blues or your grays and entered into the armed forces.
HUNTAnd then also, this was the Victorian era. And there was not a culture of stripping your clothes off at every possible juncture and diving into creeks and so forth. And it's not to say that there weren't people who did that. But it wasn't at all uncommon for people to take a pass on that sort of activity and to stand quietly on the sideline, keeping their uniform on. And in fact, people kept their uniform on for weeks at a time. People slept in their uniforms, and so there wasn't this -- there wasn't necessarily a fear of being discovered at -- when it was time to go to bed.
HUNTAnd then, these, you know, to keep on with the uniforms, they were so often so ill-fitting that it wasn't so difficult to hide a different physique, let's say, underneath a uniform. So there were a number of factors that made it possible and a lot of these things stopped, even just a few decades later. Physical exams, for example, got much more rigorous.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. In case you're just joining us, we're talking with Laird Hunt. He's author of the novel, "Neverhome." That's the novel that we're discussing about a woman who passed as a man in the Civil War and fought in the war. Can the everyday details of war often be as compelling as the big battles? Call us. 800-433-8850. If you have stories of your own family members who fought in the Civil War, you can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The beautiful, the spare language you use in "Neverhome," reads like a diary. Tell us about the research you did in recreating the language, the tone of Ash Thompson's journey across the Civil War landscape.
HUNTI had a couple of gifts that came my way when I started to seriously think about writing a novel around this subject. And one of them was the fact that I was raised, in large part, by my rural Indiana grandmother. And while the voice of Ash Thompson in "Neverhome" is not my grandmother's voice, it's, hers was a voice that contained these ancestral voices. Indeed, when she was a child, there were Civil War veterans still alive and around and speaking to her. And so she had these echoes of an older time.
HUNTAnd I can hear her, speaking still, very loudly, in my mind. So that was one thing that gave me a sense of how one might have spoken. And then also, our family has a box of Civil War era letters in its possession that my father, when he heard that I was thinking about this subject, he remembered as a boy reading letters and seeing them and holding them, but we didn't know where they were. And we spent a long time searching. It was my sister who finally found them in a closet at the family farmhouse.
HUNTAnd they're beautiful, beautiful documents. It's not so much the subject matter, the content of the letters which often are much more interested in what's going on back home than they are in describing what's going on in the war. The documents are gorgeous. The handwriting is beautiful. The paper is crumbling. And they're incredibly evocative. And then, in addition to -- so, having those two great gifts and thinking about this, I spent a lot of time reading the diaries and the letters and the memoirs of common soldiers who fought.
HUNTYoung men in addition to the young women who disguised themselves. We have a few memoirs and we have a -- this book of letters called "An Uncommon Soldier," by -- which are the Civil War letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who fought as Lyons Wakeman. And this was a collection of letters edited by Lauren Cook. And so, I read, I spent time reading those letters, and doing as much research, not around the generals, not around the great lines of trajectories of armies, but around the individual people who did this. And it's really quite beautiful and moving to spend time with them.
NNAMDIObviously, you learned some more about your own family reading these Civil War letters. You actually incorporated some of your family's Civil War experiences into your book. Tell us about the incident of the bullet in the glove.
HUNTI had an ancestor with a wonderful name, Thomas Goatley Laird. And he went to war to fight with the Kentucky Volunteers. And he was a Junior Cavalry Officer. He rode to war on one horse, and so the family story goes, and four years later, he rode home on the same horse. Which, in and of itself, is quite extraordinary, knowing how hard that war was on animals. So that's part of the legend of Thomas Goatley Laird. The more exciting part though, is that he was getting ready to lead his men forward into a battle.
HUNTAnd had his gloved hand raised to signal them forward. And he felt a plink between his -- in the crook of his middle finger and the finger next to it, and looked over and saw that he had caught a bullet. A bullet that had come to the end of its trajectory and landed there. It had no more energy. Just enough to lodge, and so the story goes that he took the bullet, stuck it in his pocket, and finished the charge. But I did work that -- weave that into the book.
NNAMDIAs a reader, you also wonder what happened to Ash's husband after she went to war. Did it raise a few eyebrows if an Indiana farmer's wife suddenly turned up missing during this war?
HUNTWell, one of the things about Ash's family, both Ash and her husband are -- stand a little bit outside of their community to start with. And they have stood up for other community members who are on the periphery of that rural society that is described. And so, it seemed to me, it seemed to me quite possible that if this marginal figure went missing with an excuse that's given in the book, or implied in the book. But not too many eyebrows would be raised. Not too many eyes were looking in their direction.
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Laird Hunt about his latest novel. It's called "Neverhome." Laird Hunt is also the author of five earlier novels and a collection of short stories. But we're taking your questions or comments at 800-433-8850. Do you have questions for Laird Hunt about his books? What are your favorite Civil War novels? 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is author Laird Hunt. We're discussing his latest novel "Neverhome." Laird Hunt is also the author of five earlier novels and a collection of short stories. Your book starts with a simple straightforward fact stated by Constance, the woman who would take on the identity of Ash. It reads, "I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic." That seems like such a simple thought but you say it's one that you mulled for years as you prepared to write this book. Can you tell us about its significance?
HUNTSo much about writing this book was really finding the voice of the narrator. And so my wife gave me a copy of "An Uncommon Soldier," the book I mentioned earlier about Sarah Rosetta or the letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman 18 years ago. And it was for a birthday present and she knew the kind of gift that her husband would be excited about. And I was so struck by the story, this woman who had did this, but it took me -- it really took me years to come to the place where I could sit down and write. And it really was -- the novel, I sort of, in many ways, feel was poured out of that initial sentence, that initial line.
HUNTSo when I had that I-was-strong-and-he-was-not sentence, the rest of the narrative came out of it. And indeed I wrote the first draft of the book in a great rush in about three weeks. Then there was a lot of work to do after that but the general trajectory of the story was there once I had that line. And I could sort of see where she was going and the difficulty she was going to have to contend with.
NNAMDIHow unusual is that for you? Does a writer need a strong opening thought or sentence? Do you need that to get you going or did that only happen on this particular occasion? Does that -- can an opening thought come a lot later in the process?
HUNTYou know, it's unusual for me and I've heard from many writer friends that so often the initial opening is really just sort of laying the groundwork for the thought to come and the effort to come. But in the case of never home and in the case of the proceeding novel "Kind One," the first line came and the book followed from that. And I don't know if it's because I'm exploring in "Neverhome" and in "Kind One" 19th century history and have done -- spent a fair amount of time thinking about it, that it has worked differently. But it's certainly not the case that in my other novels I've had the first line right from the beginning. It's kind of another one of these great gifts.
NNAMDILet's hear a little bit of Ash's story. Would you mind reading from, I guess it's page 27 where she describes her first real battle.
HUNTI would love to. "We started to see gray off at a distance, just little speckles of it but everywhere. And they had us take off our knapsacks and anything else wouldn't help in the fight. I didn't have time to be sorry to see Bartholomew's likeness in all of my letters from him go. I just untangled the sack like all those around me were doing and let it drop. We all but ran then. There was a company of ours up ahead having hell's time and needed our help at holding the flank. I had stood at the picket and fired off my rifle at a man, as I've already said but there's a first time for battles too.
HUNTSome good number of us fell as we made the last effort and the air filled itself up with smoke. It seemed like we would never get to where we were going and then we were there. We had come to a field as long and wide as you like with us on one side and them on the other. It was their boys in their slouch hats and us in ours. If we had been wearing the same colors you could've thought it was a mirror. Like the central job of it was, we were fixing to fire at ourselves. Like the other half of it, the mirror was fixing to fire straight back.
HUNTI got this idea I gripped hard onto that there had to be skirmishers go out first, that we would each send out a wave at each other, that it wasn't yet time for the rest of us to fight. Our colonel came riding up behind us about then and put that idea right out of my head. He rode up then got down off his horse and gave his moustaches a twist and said, we hadn't come all the way over from Ohio to pick petunias, that it was time to bring thunder to fling doom, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and never fear the dark.
HUNTWhile he made this speech, the grays kept creeping forward and we did too. And when we had both quit creeping, our throats and eyes had already started fighting and our colors stood not 40 yards apart. There had been a sutler in camp just the day before, had tried to sell off a set of iron armor could keep out, he had said, any bullet built by man and see you home to your loved ones. But he had been laughed down.
HUNTI got a picture of that armor in my head though when the gray volleys commenced and the boy next to me caught his ravishing and fell away just as we were lifting our guns. The boy on the other side of me croaked out about sure wishing he had a rock or a tree to stand behind. And the old fellow who'd been in plenty of fights next to him laughed and bit open a cartridge, sniffed loud and said, you are the tree, son."
NNAMDIThat is Laird Hunt reading from his latest novel "Neverhome." You can go to our website kojoshow.org and you can read an excerpt of "Neverhome" there. You can also join the conversation, ask a question or make a comment. This woman, Laird, seems to have nerves of steel and at several points in the book she performs heroic deeds for her fellow soldiers. Where does she get this gallant streak, if you will?
HUNTA big part of her motivation in going to war is a desire to live up to the examples set by her mother who is a strong and flawed character who's also presented in the book. And so there's a kind of inversion on the sort of received notion that it is this idea that it's men trying to live up to the legacy of their fathers who go off to war. In this case she wants desperately to succeed in a way where her strong mother doesn't quite succeed. And that's part of what's discussed in the novel. And then, you know, she's also just a fierce individual who, as she says, never ever backs down.
HUNTPut on your headphones, please because we're about to hear from Angelo in Clarksburg, Md. Angelo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANGELOThanks for taking my call, Kojo. I just wanted to mention that I believe that, you know, women in American history and specifically in Civil War history ought to be a required general class in our education system, specifically in college because right now it's kind of like an elective. I know I took an elective on that back in the '90s when I went to college in Glendale Community College out in California north of Los Angeles.
ANGELOBut one of the things that I took away from that walking out is I learned that there's a lot more contribution that women did than just the Eleanor Roosevelt part. You know, that there's actual origins of how our modernized health care system came to be in terms of delivering health care in the battlefield in general as well as a lot of these universities grew out of, you know, women who weren't allowed to learn, grouping together in secret, you know, areas, secret places to share information. And eventually universities were born out of these. So not a lot of people knew about that, so a lot of these U.S. history stories that we learn are very male-dominated stories.
NNAMDIAnd presumably, Laird Hunt, that's one of the reasons you wanted to write this novel.
HUNTOh, absolutely. When I have been asked about why did you choose to write this, why did you choose to write this story from the point of view of a woman, my quick answer has been that we have not told enough of the stories of women in this country. Our literature has not dealt with the stories of women enough. And no matter who we are, it seems to me, we ought to be attending to them.
HUNTThese women who went to war to fight went and they were absolutely not allowed to do this. When they were discovered they were dismissed but many of them simply signed up with another regiment. They went down the road and fought again. Such was their desire to do this. And so I absolutely agree with the caller.
NNAMDIYour last novel "Kind One" was also set in this same era and told a story of a woman who encounters slavery in the role of both oppressor and victim. Are you drawn to the female voice in your writing? Is it harder for authors to write in a voice of the opposite gender?
HUNTYou know, I think that it's a worthy and ennobling challenge. I described earlier being raised by my paternal grandmother to a large extent. And so it's a voice that I hear readily and loudly in my mind. And so I -- you know, there is that. But again, I do feel like without being -- without any notion of wishing to appropriate or to be presumptuous, I think it is worth when the story requires it, when the project, the novel requires it, entering into a voice that is not your own. And sometimes being a stranger in a relatively strange land is a useful place to be as a writer. I think it keeps you on your toes.
NNAMDIReaders don't really get a good idea of what Ash looks like in your novel. Did you downplay her looks intentionally?
HUNTI think that there is something to that. I wanted the way she looked in a reader's mind to really be a reflection of her actions described, a reflection of the voice that she uses in telling the story. And it's also -- because it is a first person story, she's telling it from her perspective, there just wasn't really anyplace along the line where I could imagine her slipping in a self-description, the old she-gazed-at-herself-in-the-mirror routine. It just didn't seem like something that she, with her fierce plain-spoken way of relating her story would go for.
NNAMDIWhat picture do you have of her in your mind?
HUNTIt's hard to separate in my mind the way that Ash looks with a kind of composite of all the images that we do have of the various women who went to fight. So in some aspects she seems tall and strapping like Melverina Elverina Peppercorn who fought out of Tennessee for the South. And in others she seems compact and thick-wristed like Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. But as far as her face goes, her face is, to me, a very interesting kind of blur.
NNAMDIThere's always the worry in "Neverhome" that Ash will be found out, punished and sent home but almost from the beginning, one gets the feeling that her colonel knows she's a woman but protects her from discovery. Can you tell me a little bit about your creation of this character who quotes Roman emperors and seems like he'd be a true Renaissance man if he weren't on the battlefield?
HUNTI'm particularly partial to the figure of the colonel and he is certainly inspired by the stories of officers who, in some way, colluded with these women and who kept their identities a secret for different reasons, for different motivations. Not always honorable ones but there was certainly that available in the historical record. And I wanted her to have access to this figure who himself has a body of knowledge that the young woman who's come up off the farm in Indiana does not have. And I wanted the book to have access to this.
HUNTThis was a century of great erudition. And the Civil War brought figures like this former professor from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio into contact with people who had not had any of those sorts of advantages. And very interesting friction I think is achieved when the two are set into conversation as they are in a number of places in the novel.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Marjory who write, "My daughter heard the tease on the show -- for the show on Morning Edition this morning. She was interested. Is the book appropriate for a 12-year-old?"
HUNTOh, I think it is appropriate for a 12-year-old. There are certainly dark moments encountered by this character but it's a kind of honest dark that's trespassed into. And I think that any younger person who has an interest in stories that have not yet been adequately told or in the myth-encrusted stories that the wonderful historian Tony Horwitz just talks about when referring to the Civil War so much as myth-encrusted or yet to be uncovered. I think that it's worth a look for just about any reader.
NNAMDILaird Hunt. His latest novel is called "Neverhome." He's also the author of five earlier novels and a collection of short stories. Thank you so much for joining us.
HUNTIt's been such a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, a look at what it means to be a single mom in today's military. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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