Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird*****

Cathy Williams was a real person, and Sarah Bird steps up to tell her story, marrying an engaging narrative with historical fact. Though I am mighty late, I received this book free and early. My thanks go to St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy.

Cathy Williams was born a slave, though her mother told her to regard herself not as a slave, but as a captive, one of noble warrior blood whose destiny was freedom. The American Civil War led General Philip Sheridan to the tobacco farm in Missouri where Cathy and many others performed forced labor for “Old Mister.” Sheridan chooses her to work in the kitchen; she isn’t pretty, and he figures she will do what she’s supposed to, rather than being caught up in romance. She and other former slaves work in exchange for meals and protection against Rebel slave-hunters.

The American Civil War is my favorite historical period to read about, and I have a soft spot for Sheridan, so this makes the story all the sweeter for me. Before my retirement, I was a history teacher and the civil war was what I taught for one term every school year, yet I didn’t find any inaccuracies here. That’s a rare thing.

Usually, stories that are set during this period hit a climax when the war ends, and soon after that, the book is over. Bird doesn’t do that here; after all, this story isn’t about the war, it’s about Williams. Victory is declared, everyone whoops for joy, and we’re not even halfway in it yet. I like this, because it shows some continuity, and one must wonder, at times—so the war ends, and then what? The South is decimated. The army virtually dissolves. What becomes of those we have been reading about? Reconstruction starts and fails, we know this; yet one wonders about individual stories.

After the war, the army is still Cathy’s home. She is a big woman, and when a soldier friend is murdered, she takes his army coat and dresses herself up as a man, becoming Private Cathay, and she joins the Buffalo Soldiers. In real life, she is the only woman to do so.

I won’t even try to recount the many experiences Williams has; in some ways, it’s a less exaggerated version of Forrest Gump, or Little Big Man, but an African-American woman is the subject, and the story is true. Bird did some top-notch research for this thing, and between that and her considerable skill with character development, pacing, and dialogue, the result is pure gold.

It starts a little slow, but patience will reward you. There’s a fair amount of violence—how could there not be—and a number of ugly situations that might make this a bad fit for a classroom read-aloud, and that’s a shame, but the story had to be told this way. I recommend it for high school libraries, and Black History Month shelves; it might also make a fine gift for your precocious reader, depending on your comfort level and theirs. The very best thing to do, younger readers or no, is to read it yourself. I alternated my review copy with the audio version that I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the reader is a standout, so I recommend it in that form as well.

Tara Revisited: Women, War, and the Plantation Legend by Catherine Clinton *****

 tararevisited First of all, if you are planning to visit Georgia with your family, don’t ask the tourist bureau to help you find Tara! It isn’t there. Neither is Scarlett or Mammy. They’re all fictional.

Thank you; I feel much better having cleared the air. But nobody can make it clearer than author Catherine Clinton, who bursts the myth of the antebellum belle and her loyal house-slaves better with greater heat and light than I have ever seen done by any one historian before. In a time of increasing apology and revisionism that makes the American Civil War seem to have been merely a dreadful misunderstanding, and that decreases the social and material weight of the slaves it freed, Clinton’s historical smack back to reality makes me want to stand up and cheer! And also to thank Net Galley and Abbeville Press for the ARC.

Clinton focuses primarily on Southern women, but she takes just about all of the myths of the “Lost Cause” and puts them through the shredder, introducing them and their origins, and in a manner meticulous but never, ever dull, demonstrates why each of them is incorrect. She doesn’t pussyfoot or hesitate to call bigotry by its name, but the tone is of the compelling storyteller rather than that of the lecturer. In a day when Caucasian Americans sometimes carelessly discard the complaints of people of color as “playing the race card” without first examining to see whether it has in fact been called out righteously, this succinct yet thorough narrative is refreshing, as if someone has opened the windows and let some of the cobwebs sweep away.

Clinton uses the voices of Southern women, both Caucasian and Black, and recognizes that there is a dearth of the latter, but she has turned over every possible rock and ferreted out every last resource in the back stacks of government libraries dating clear back to the WPA to access what is available. She also quotes Mary Chesnut, a Caucasian Southerner whose diary is a mainstay of Civil War historians, enough and in enough interesting ways to make me want to go dig up my own copy, which bored me to tears the first two times I tried to slog through it. Filtered through Clinton’s prose, it is a lively and interesting vantage point. And she quotes WEB DuBois, one of my greatest heroes.

There is one area where most US historians dislike to tread (or are perhaps unaware), and I read on with interest (this being the field in which I taught for many years) to see whether she would go there. She did. Not many American historians can bring themselves to discuss the deepest Southern shame (and by extension, America’s for having accommodated it so long) of slave breeding, a practice done in no other part of the world. In a time in which slavery was dying out across Europe, US border states, which had difficulty growing crops year ‘round to sustain the (minimal but still existent) expenses incurred by slaves, had turned to trafficking in human flesh, going so far as to select who should sleep with whom out in the quarters so that they would have the best possible product to sell once the progeny was born and weaned. Clinton does not use the word “breeding”, but she does describe it accurately.

She also points out that actually, most white Southern women did not lead the lives of idle privilege that the cinema would have us believe; though their lives were many times better than that of slaves, they had a large household to manage without the labor saving devices technology would bring. And of course, most white households were not those of planters. She discusses the various social crumbs that were dropped for less affluent whites by the aristocracy in order to keep them from crossing the color line in solidarity with other toilers.

I usually must abbreviate my reviews for fear I will give away all the meaty parts of a book and leave the reader no real purpose in checking it out personally. There is no danger of that here. This narrative is so deftly and expertly crafted that I found myself bookmarking more than half of its pages, because so many had a salient fact, interesting quote, or well-turned interpretation. I constantly found myself thinking, “Yes!”

When Clinton mentioned the Southern fear of “miscegenation”, or racial intermarriage, this reviewer could not help a small intake of breath, given that in other times, I would be deemed guilty and my husband would likely be dead.

If you have any interest whatsoever in the American Civil War, you need this book. If women’s history is of interest to you, get this book.

If you care about issues of race in the United States, there are two recently published books that should adorn your shelves and be next-read if you have not done so: this book is one, and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. In a sense, Wilkerson picks up where (chronologically) Clinton leaves off. And if you have already read Wilkerson, you still need to read Clinton.

What are you waiting for? Get out your credit card and order the book. You won’t be sorry.