Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Civil War from a Unique Perspective: Kiana Davenport's The Spy Lover

Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors. Because of that we too often suffer from the delusion that our side (whatever side that is) were the good guys and their side (whoever they are) got what they deserved. This is rarely true. Ever since I discovered Kiana Davenport's writing back in the early 1990s I have been mesmerized - sometimes painfully so - by her writing and her new novel, "The Spy Lover," epitomizes that experience.

Though I am not particularly interested in Civil War novels, I've read my fair share from "Gone with the Wind" to a few of Bruce Catton's novels. I recently read James Lee Burke's "White Doves At Morning," a stunning story about the war and its aftermath for a small group of people from New Iberia, Louisiana. The story is based on two of Burke's ancestors and, like all of Burke's writing, the story is good but the characters are superb. For The Spy Lover Kiana Davenport uses the same inspiration, the experiences of her ancestors, but because her ancestors come from another culture we are offered a perspective on the atrocities of war that has long gone unseen and is shattering in its brutality.

Johnny Tom is a Chinese immigrant who escaped the horrors of drought and famine in his country to come to the United States. He escapes the slave auction-blocks and the vigilante "yellow dogs" who hunt down immigrants to sell into slavery that is even more brutal than that of plantation black slaves. After losing his first wife Johnny marries a Native American - Cree - woman and fathers a daughter he calls Era. Then the War Between the States begins and Johnny is conscripted by the Confederacy. He manages to defect to the Union where he is promised citizenship in exchange for fighting for the Union Army but soon winds up in a prisoner of war camp where conditions are horrific.

Era, now eighteen, has trained as a nurse and she agrees to act as a spy while working in Confederate hospital encampments in exchange for news of her father. In one of these camps she meets Warren Petticomb, a handsome cavalry officer who lost an arm at Shiloh. Their love affair begins.

Ms Davenport's writing is both glorious and shattering in its brutality. She does not back down either from the horrors of war or the even greater horrors of human cruelty. Most of us have heard stories and read books about the atrocities of slave-owners but the cruelty endured by those of other races, including the Chinese and Native Americans, is equally relentless - sometimes more so because they were not offered the protections of a master with an interest in safeguarding valued property.

I have to confess that some of the battle scenes were nearly more than I could handle and yet I read them because I could not help but think, "This is important, we live in perilous times and we need to remember what people are capable of." Her description of the Battle of Gettysburg is heart-breaking. But through the blood and gore and gunpowder there is always the endless love of a daughter for her father, a man for his lost wife, a young man for a woman he has betrayed. Their love carries them through horror after horror in the search for the beloved.

I will be honest, this is not a story that everyone will be able to handle, but it is a story that many need to read. We need to be reminded not only of what evil we are capable of but also of what lengths people are capable on behalf of those they love. Kiana Davenport has created an extraordinary epic about people forgotten by, or overlooked by, the history books. Her novel serves as a reminder that the history books don't tell the greater story.

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