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Wednesday, June 29th 2005

1:14 PM

THE DESERTER Murder at Gettysburg by Jane Langton

 

Reviewer Christine McCreedy

Jane Langton's Homer Kelly mystery The Deserter is part mystery, part civil war novel, part lesson in the use of genealogical methods to search out your civil war ancestor and all in all truly a wonderful book. Langton gives Homer and his wife Mary, Harvard professors, an in to the civil war as they ponder the names of Harvard graduates in Memorial Hall who were killed during the conflict between the states. Their pondering becomes personal as Mary brings up the family story that her ancestor Seth Morgan.  Morgan was involved in the civil war, but no one would talk plainly about the circumstances that cause Mary's family "shame." The curious professors begin to seek out the truth about Seth and become involved in the world of civil war collecting and research. The reader is treated to Seth's story through his Harvard classmates, fellow soldiers and his wife's story. Langton gives the story rich historical detail and highlights it with period pictures of unknown men and women. These men and women take on the characters of the story and speak for several generations of Americans so tragically effected by the civil war. Langton obviously researched her topic and it's effects on the nation's citizens. This makes her mystery a sobering, intriguing history lesson, bringing the real ugly history of the war to life.

The story is given levity by a crazy shirt tail cousin of Mary's named Ebenezer. Just a side note here--how perfect a name Langston chose as we all have at least one Ebenzer in our family trees. In The Deserter Ebenezer is a so called civil war collector/renactor who's obsession with the time period leads him to become a thief and eventually to march off in search of glory among the countless others who felt the cause was worthy, but who had no idea of the war's horror. Ebenezer serves to lighten the fictional account of the all to real hardships of the civil war.

Although I'm becoming weary of authors who use two narratives to tell a story set in the present effected by the past, Langton employs the technique effectively and ties two stand alone stories together. As the book closes she reiterates what the two stories reveal slowly to the reader. As Homer and Mary research and Seth's story is told the reader begins to realize that although we dig for the truth about our ancestors we may never truly know the fine details of their story. Additionally, we may be privy to details of their story that they never were. Seth's case leads Mary and Homer to the National Archives and to pursue newspaper research which revels the truth about Mary's family shame. In doing so they discover aspects of the story that Seth's wife Ida and his family never had knowledge of. In reading Seth and Ida's story we discover aspects of the story Mary and Homer never will discover.

Langton has gives her reader the ultimate power in discovering all the secrets to the mystery and it makes for a delightful read.  

 The Deserter by Jane Langton  ISBN 0312301863 2003

Christine's Random Thoughts on Civil War Fiction.  Fictional and non-fictional accounts of the civil war have been popular for years, primarily I believe because we are still so close to the original event. It still holds personal fascination for many people because we really still are only five generations from the men and women involved in the period. My great grandmother, who I remember fondly, was the daughter of a civil war veteran. The family still tells the stories she passed down of her father and her mother and their life during and after the civil war. I recently have been able to separate family fact from fiction and found out there was very little fiction and mostly fact to my families outrageous stories of great greandfather Will.   I obtained papers from the National Archives that confirmed much of what I thought was speculation among my famiy members.  As accurately described by Langton in The Deserter  the National Archives  are gold mines of personal information about our ancestors. Additionally, during my research I found out there was even more to the story, information my grandmother and perhaps great grandmother were never privy to. The new information has created even more questions than I had prior to obtaining the information, thus creating a new mystery. In a way the creation of the new mystery is a wonderful thing because I love a good mystery and I especially love ones involving history because I'm continuing to learn about the time periods of my ancestors. Time periods that have lead to my own personal history.

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