Thursday, May 21, 2009

Two Brothers. One North, One South by David H. Jones

For a fan of historical fiction, I have surprisingly stayed away from books set in the times of the Civil War or any other American history. I truly have no answer as to why that is but I decided it was high time I added the history of United States to my repertoire of historical fiction. Therefore, it was only natural for me to use the opportunity to read and review Two Brothers. One North, One South by David H. Jones.

Two Brothers is a story of two men, William and Clifton Prentiss, brothers alienated by the Civil War and their personal beliefs. It starts with a famous literary figure, Walt Whitman attending to William Prentiss in Armory State Hospital in Washington D.C. William lost his leg at a battle four days before the Confederate Army capitulation and subsequent end of the war. The surgery turned out to be unsuccessful and William dies after a couple of weeks of struggle. During those weeks, Whitman is the only person who faithfully visits the younger Prentiss brother and listens with sadness and rapture to William’s history. William Prentiss was a Rebel soldier from Maryland. At the outbreak of war, he shunned the authority of his state and the Union and joined the secessionists in Virginia. His older brother, Clifton stayed loyal to President Lincoln and to the Union. This estrangement is a documented fact, not fiction as well as the brothers’ first and final reunion on the battlefield where they were both mortally wounded. Two Brothers is a form of compiled recollections of the wartime events as told by William to Whitman and by Clifton to Whitman and to his two remaining brothers, Melville and John who stayed at Clifton’s hospital bedside until the whole story was told.

I have many mixed feelings about this book. I give a lot credit to the author, Mr. Jones for writing an incredibly well documented detailed story. Not being a writer myself, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to write such a book that combines true events with fiction. However, even though Two Brothers wasn’t a bad novel, it wasn’t unfortunately a great historical epic either (I use the epic comparison because this book certainly had that potential). I must say that too many parts of the novel read like non-fiction rather than historical fiction, and because I was not prepared for that, I became a little put off by it. The author’s knowledge of the Civil War and events that took place in Maryland on the outset of it is evident. I learned a lot of interesting and useful facts of which I hadn’t known before, including the fact that Maryland was so greatly conflicted about its loyalties. Also, its unique position as one of the Border States where fathers were fighting against sons and brothers set against brothers, gave me a deeper understanding of how tragic the Civil War truly was. Subsequently, the way all this was conveyed on the pages of Two Brothers made me wonder whether Mr. Jones would have been better off just writing a non-fiction book.

There were also parts of the book that I did enjoy. I was surprised and glad to read about the Cary sisters, the role in aiding the Confederates agenda, and the gender shift that occurred in the South during the war. It was very captivating to read about the central role of women taking strong stands and fighting the war in the backyards of their households. I think that the story of Hetty Cary and other Confederate women would make a fine novel of its own. As a matter of fact, Hetty was portrayed in such a positive way that I just had to find out what she really looked like and whether she indeed was of breathtaking beauty to which no man was resistant. Here’s her photograph and I’ll let you judge for yourself.
All and all, if you are a fan of ballistic fiction with plenty of detailed descriptions of military events, you will most likely appreciate this novel a lot more than I did. Otherwise, it’s still an interesting book to read, it did encourage me to read more of the Civil War novels but because of dry descriptions of battles and maneuvers I kept losing focus and interest more often than I’d have liked.
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Special Thanks to Paula K. from AME, Inc. for sending me a copy of this book.
Alsi, if you'd like to find out more about this book or its author visit the official site for Two Brothers that includes David H. Jones's blog.