Updated: Apr 2
Read "The Scorched Earth"
A different kind of Civil War novel
Forty years ago, I read John Jake’s North and South trilogy about the Civil War. Before then, I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and went SEVEN times to watch the film at the local dollar theater with my best junior-high- school friend, Sandy Budd.
But I can’t remember reading any Civil War epic novels since.
A book blurb on This Scorched Earth caught my eye, and I’m glad I found it.
Barnes and Noble described it this way:
“This Scorched Earth is an amazing tour de force depicting a family’s journey from near-devastation in the Civil War to their rebirth in the American West, from New York Times bestselling author William Gear.”
Yes, This Scorched Earth is a “Civil War” novel, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, it illustrates the horrors and brutalities of battle, but it also emphasizes the damage done to civilians. The novel shows the ways that one family is forever changed, depicting the very real struggles of people after the war was over.
Although the book shows the gruesomeness of the Civil War, it is not without hope. This Scorched Earth also chronicles the stories of individuals who can adapt and survive in a very different future in a very different place. In this case, the setting for redemption is the American West at its rise.
The Hancock Family
In 1861, the Hancock family lives in rural Arkansas in an affluent home out in the country where the mother holds everything together. The father comes and goes, holding court with local politicians and waymakers when he is home, talking about the chance of war. Rumors are that the father made his money, not by fighting in the Mexican war of 1848, but by looting homes and stealing gold. Whatever his motives, Mr. Hancock enlists in the Confederate Army.
Philip, the oldest son, has been gone for years, studying medicine in Boston. He’s estranged from his family because of something his father has done. We see “Doc” headed South after his schooling, beginning his career in medicine with whatever opportunities present themselves, mostly serving brothels. Eventually, he gets to Memphis and teams up with old Dr. Morton and promptly falls for Dr. Morton’s lovely daughter, Ann Marie.
Butler is the second son. He is a soft soul, an academic and scholar who often quotes poetry. Trained in Philadelphia, Butler is not a proponent of slavery, but when duty calls, Butler enlists as an officer in the Confederate Army serving Colonel Hindman.
With the father and Butler enlisting and Philip long gone, the mother, Sarah, and Billy are left to fend for themselves. Sarah is a beautiful, 17-year-old young woman who had hopes of going to Little Rock to attract a prominent husband. Billy is the youngest, a young teenage boy who loves to hunt and track and spend time outside.
How the Hancock Family is changed
“Doc” enlists with the Confederates as a surgeon, urged by Ann Marie who wants Doc to look out after her younger brother, James, who has just joined up. By enlisting, Doc can earn enough money to establish his own practice upon his return from what Southerners expect to be a very brief stint in a short-term war.
Of course, the war is not short-term. Instead, Doc is a surgeon for the Confederate Army, seeing the horrors of injuries. He performs hundreds of amputations and sews miles of stitches. Bullet wounds. Burns. Eye injuries. Shrapnel damage. Doc does his best to fix the soldiers, but he feels guilt for all the ones he can’t save. Eventually, Doc is captured and sent as a prisoner of war to the Union camp in Chicago, along with Ann Marie’s brother, James. In the long and painful time Doc wastes away in prison, Ann Marie marries someone else, and Doc is left bereft and alone.
Sarah and her mother send Billy away to a cabin in the hills so that he is not transcripted. While he is gone, a rogue band of men come and kill the mother and take Sarah away to brutalize and gang-rape her. When Billy finds out, he sets out on a quest to kill the men. His grief and guilt at what has happened to the women of his family change him forever, making him vengeful and mean.
Of course, Sarah will never again be an innocent young woman hoping for a future with a prominent man. Instead, her hopes are channeled into merely surviving — which she does, becoming a financial success and savvy businesswoman.
Butler’s story is probably the most poignant and the most fascinating aspect of the book.
This Scorched Earth covers a gamut of topics during the Civil War and the era of reconstruction. William Gear was able to write battle scenes so effectively that I tasted dust and smelled smoke. Bullets whizzed by and explosions blew out my hearing.
Doc struggles to deal with the carnage so realistically depicted by Gear, but it is Butler’s story that fascinated me and added an element to this book that made it unique.
At the battle of Chickamauga, Butler finds himself in charge of his unit. When everyone around him is killed, Butler loses himself. His mind can’t handle the trauma, and from that point forward, Butler, too, is irrevocably changed.
He talks to his men as if they were standing right next to him. He hears them commenting as they did when they were alive. They give him advice, tease him, and get upset with him when they think he’s making the wrong decision. Butler believes that he has to take these men back to their homes, and they travel with him continually.
This Scorched Earth deals with the mental illness that resulted from battlefield trauma in the 1860s, what we now call PTSD. Butler is an odd and endearing — and certainly memorable — character who lives with an ongoing mental illness before there were medications that would help.
After the war, Butler hooks up briefly with Doc until Butler decides to go West on his own. There, Butler encounters Native Americas who perceive mental illness as a power and accept him into their tribe.
The fates of the four siblings somehow intertwine as one by one, each decides to travel west to a wilder frontier where making a new life might be possible.
Gear has crafted a compelling narrative, interesting characters, and rough, raw situations. From the battlefields of the Civil War to putrid prison camps, to brothels and parlors, to Indian camps and the burgeoning metropolis of Denver, we venture into the places of history significant to our country.
Read This Scorched Earth
If you are a Civil War buff, an aficionado of American History, or someone interested in the American West, you’ll want to read This Scorched Earth.
But even if you’re not any of the above things and you just like a darn good story, read or listen to This Scorched Earth.