Friday, January 4, 2013

THE DESERTER by Jane Langton

“Almost everything falls away. Slyly, the entire past falls away. Vanishing is what it does best, leaving little trace--a picture, a letter, a garbled rumor. Children get the story wrong and pass it along. And of course some things are mistaken from the beginning.” 


What a wonderful book to read as my first book of 2013!

Two great armies fought the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg one hundred and fifty years ago this year (July 1-3, 1863).

Jane Langton’s The Deserter: Murder at Gettysburg describes a portion of that battle in detail.

Present day Harvard Professors Homer and Mary Kelly set out to trace the history of Mary’s great-great-grandfather Seth Morgan. Officials left Seth’s name off of Harvard Memorial Hall’s plaque commemorating Northerners killed in the war. (There is no similar Harvard plaque memorializing students who died fighting for the South.)

Those who made the plaque thought Seth was a deserter.

As so often happens in Langton’s books, we know the murderer fairly early. Otis Pike, a fellow Harvard student deserting from the war, killed Seth and stole his identity. Homer and Mary use a combination of modern-day legwork and extensive research to discover the real nature of her grandfather’s service.

The great heroine of the story is Seth’s wife Ida. Ida, at least eight months pregnant, goes to the battlefield in hopes of finding her wounded husband.

This book has two parallel stories--the Civil War story told in real time, and the story of today.

Homer and Mary never discover that the crime was murder, but they do uncover the rest of the details about the event.

At first, academic historical research might seem to be a boring plot device, but it is not. The “today” part of the story takes up less than one-third of the book (by my guess). The real time historical descriptions of the Civil War take up the rest.

History is filled with ironies. The Second Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry which fought in the Battle of Gettysburg included several men from Harvard’s annual Hasty Pudding Club play of 1860. These men who danced in drag and laughed together would end up fighting together, dying together, and in one case, betraying one another.

The book has a mix of actual historical characters and fictional characters. In the Afterword, Langton sorts them out for us. Suffice it to say, I found them all compelling.

What more can I say? I loved this book. I think it is a perfect mystery to read in this year of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

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