Sunday, February 16, 2014

"The Widow of the South" by Robert Hicks: A Tale of Carrie McGavock

Book Review By Teresa Wasson, The Associated Press

FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- The story of Carrie McGavock was too good to be left untold but too incomplete to be told as history.

When music publisher Robert Hicks couldn't find a professional writer to tell what he considered the intriguing story of plantation mistress Carrie McGavock, he wrote the book himself, titling it "The Widow of the South."

McGavock was the mistress of a Southern plantation when the Civil War arrived at her door Nov. 30, 1864. The Battle of Franklin turned her mansion, Carnton, into a Confederate field hospital and McGavock into a nurse to thousands of injured soldiers lying, moaning and dying on the floors and grounds.

When farming threatened to unearth the Battle of Franklin's dead from shallow graves in 1866, McGavock and her husband, John, reburied 1,481 Confederate soldiers at Carnton. McGavock tended the backyard cemetery with a passion, visiting it each day and cleaning the graves of even the smallest twigs. She soon became known as "The Widow of the South."

Robert Hicks fell in love with McGavock's story while a volunteer board member for the historical site now at Carnton, and he tried to persuade professional writers to take on the book. But he couldn't find anyone who had his thirst to tell it right.

So he put aside a career in country-music publishing to share McGavock's story in his new best-selling novel, "The Widow of the South."

Hicks, who has cherished Carnton as fiercely as McGavock, centered his book on a fictional relationship between McGavock and a wounded Confederate sergeant named Zacariah Cashwell because he knew little about the plantation mistress. He says that he didn't intentionally change McGavock's story, but at times he just didn't have all the facts to fully tell it.

"Every fact I know about Carrie McGavock could fit in a small booklet," he says.

So Hicks filled out the tale with a love story.

"If I wanted to do this, it needed to be fiction," he says. "I needed to put meat and flesh onto the bones of the facts."

Warner Books bought the novel after seeing only the first third of it. The publisher is strongly backing the book, which went on sale Aug. 30, with a first printing of 250,000 copies and an extended book tour. It quickly hit the top 10 on the Publishers Weekly list of best sellers.

Warner calculates that the Civil War reality in the book will hook some history buffs, but for editor Amy Einhorn, it resonates more fully as a piece of fiction. "This is an amazing epic love story," she said.

Agent Jeff Kleinman said the book presented a strong three-part package for the publisher: First, Hicks crafts an authenticity of Carnton that is comparable to that of Savannah, Ga., in John Berendt's nonfictional "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"; second, there's good writing; and third, the 54-year-old author makes an eloquent front man.

Hicks is a vivid storyteller who heard tales about the Civil War from his father, who heard them from his father, but he's not a sage of the Civil War in the patrician style of historian Shelby Foote. Hicks is more laid-back, a man as comfortable with his shaved head and goatee as he is wearing dark-framed glasses and layered shirts.

He lives in an 18th-century log house a few miles west of Carnton, just south of Nashville. His home is filled with period antiques typical of a Southern plantation such as Carnton, but is dominated by an esteemed collection of primitive art, including paintings by outsider artist Howard Finster and three-dimensional slave pottery known as face jugs.

Hicks eases his large frame into a side chair in his living room, and quickly rattles off facts. He recalls a wounded soldier's account of his care by McGavock and often ends his answers by asking, "Does that make sense?"

Hicks grew up in the South, spending his childhood summers at the family home in Hicksville, an eponymous community now swallowed up by Jackson in western Tennessee. But his planter-class family, which helped found GM&O Railroad, spent winters among the wealthy in South Florida.

Hicks liked books but wasn't influenced by classic literary Civil War books such as "The Killer Angels" or "Shiloh," which he never read. He didn't put Foote's seminal three-volume history of the Civil War into his extensive personal library until he began doing research for "The Widow of the South." He had to bone up on the facts of the Battle of Franklin to ensure accuracy but was confident in building a story for his heroine.

"This is a book that has real heart. Robert is a guy who poured his heart out on every page," Kleinman says.

The book shifts viewpoints among the McGavocks, Cashwell, a slave named Mariah Reddick and several minor characters. The lovers speak in first person while others, notably John McGavock, are presented in third-person narrative form.

"I don't know John," Hicks says. "I could read things about him all day, but I couldn't quite get my hands on him. Because I couldn't figure out who he was is kind of why Zacariah came on the scene. I wanted someone who could kind of lead her to self-discovery."

The book structure was shaped by his appreciation of William Faulkner, an archetype of Southern fiction, and the love themes in Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago" and other Russian novels.

"What a good Russian novel does is, you see these people tossed and turned by events of their lives," Hicks says. "The difference is I didn't want Cashwell to miss Carrie. I wanted him to come back -- as opposed to Lara and Zhivago."

So at the end of their lives, Hicks reunites his lovers.

Fictionalizing McGavock into a near-adulterer doesn't bother her descendants. They came to appreciate Hicks for spearheading improved scholarly research and a renovation at the family's former mansion. Two of McGavock's great-great-grandsons hosted a book launch party for several hundred guests at Carnton when "The Widow of the South" came out last month.

"We recognize for the novel to be a success, it has to have many fictional elements," said Roderick Heller, an attorney in Washington, D.C.

His brother, Hanes Heller, appreciated seeing an ancestor he'd always known as a dour widow as a younger, more vibrant woman. "Robert made a real woman out of Carrie," he said.


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