Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

I have to admit. This book took me quite awhile to read. But! Not because it was bad, or even boring, I just haven’t been reading much (I could tell you the long complicated whine about how I think my glasses need changed and that my corneal dystrophy is getting worse, but I won’t…I just pretty much did anyway ha!).

This book was perfect though for a long read. First, it is long to begin with (around 700 pages), but second there is so much to it. This is a book with stories within stories. The main character, Lucy, married a Civl War veteran who was 50 to her 15. He got home from the Civil War at 15, so obviously she was born during Reconstruction. Which is fitting, because in many ways, that’s what Lucy is doing in this book, reconstructing. She states that she is a veteran of a veteran, and because he told his stories so much she has them bred into her. She is currently 99 years old, and the book is first person narration, with her speaking to a person interviewing her, whom Gurganus never tells us what they are saying and we are left to put it together from Lucy’s words.

Lucy weaves a tale that starts over 30 years before she is born and ends in the 1980s when she is in a nursing home. The tales all tie together. The thing I loved about it, is Gurganus takes these somewhat disparate tales about these very different people in different times and weaves it into a cohesive and compelling picture of both history and of the “battleground” of marriage (which Lucy herself calls it). The voice of Lucy is authentic, and if you didn’t know the author, you would swear it was written by a woman, that’s how real what Lucy has to say about marriage and being a girl feels.

Gurganus also dispels some of the myths that 150 years later, we still like to tell to soothe our consciences, like that slaves mostly -liked- being slaves and that there were “good” masters that slaves felt indebted to and felt so attached to that they couldn’t leave them after the War. Willie Marsden, Lucy’s husband, is the son of a large plantation owner. His father has died, so it’s just his mother. She calls herself a good slave owner and the proof offered is that her husband instituted a policy of giving Sunday afternoons off to his slaves, that they give them crates of oranges at Christmas and that on the day Will’s father dies, his mother gives all the slaves the day off. She also likes to play some complicated game with the slave children and has given some of her jewelry to Castalia, a slave girl Will’s age. But Gurganus juxtaposes this with scenes that have Lady (that is her given name) telling a young girl (she’s 38) that one of the best beauty enhancements is to have two good looking black chests framing her face. He also shows how Lady requires a complicated hairdo and for her slaves to brush each section of her hair 200 times. How, in the past, some of the slaves relatives have been punished in a building where many of them die. Lucy takes us through a narrative from interviews she did at 11 about when the Marsden plantation was burned by Sherman and how the slaves reacted to their freedom. It shows them scared of it, but wanting it so badly, and shows how some of the slaves take no time to tell Lady exactly what they think of her. It shows how many of the freed slaves ended up in the service roles that made them appear to be loyal and wanting a Master, more through circumstance than desire.

Lucy takes us through her history and Will’s history and shows us the country’s history at the same time.

Gurganus is genius at creating characters. Each story within the main story could be set apart as a short story or evolved into a novel of its own, with no problem. None of the characters fit into the stereotype holes that society has evolved to describe slavery and the Civil War and Reconstruction and the Depression, the Wars et cetera. Some come close, like Lady as a plantation mistress, but none fit into the holes developed for them. Gurganus also shows us the complications of humans. A large majority of his characters are evolved, and don’t just act in the initial way he paints them.

I really loved this book. If you were a fan of Gone With the Wind, or Ken Follett’s sprawling historical fiction works, or really any historical fiction book spanning decades, you might find yourself loving this book too.

I liked it also because it was amazing as a slow read, but I could definitely have read it at a much quicker pace and not lost anything.

(Dave, will you please put in comments which author(s) listed this book? Greg has yet to help move a bookshelf to its correct place so all my books are still in boxes. ā¤ you Greg šŸ™‚ )

For those of you reading this participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck!!! (I'm not, but admire those of you that are!)

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One response to “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

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