I have read, enjoyed and reviewed several of S.R. Mallery’s novels and short story collections (most recently The Dolan Girls, check the review here) and she has a knack for combining historical fact and characters with gripping stories that grab the readers, transporting them into another world, sometimes closer and sometimes far back in the past.
In this novella, the author takes us back to the period of the early American Civil War, and our guides are two characters, James, a medical student from New York (an Irish immigrant who moved with his parents when he was a child and suffered tragedy and deprivation from an early age) and Hannah, a Southern girl, the daughter of slave owners, although not a typical Southern belle, as she enjoys books more than balls and feels closer to some slaves (including her childhood friend, Noah) than to her own cousin, the manipulating Lavinia.
The story is told in the third person from both characters’ point of view. They meet in Washington D.C. at the beginning of the novel, realise they have plenty in common (their love of books and their political sympathies among other things) and fall in love (more at at-first-meeting than at-first-sight) as they should in these kinds of stories. There are many things that separate them (I’m not sure I’d call them star-crossed lovers, but there is a bit of that), and matters get even more complicated when James decides to join the Pinkerton Detective Agency and ends up chasing Confederate Spies. At the same time, Hannah is forced to spy for the South, much against her will, and… Well, as the author quotes at the start of one of the chapters (thanks, Shakespeare) ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’. I won’t give you full details but let me tell you there are secret codes, interesting hiding places, blackmail, occult passages, and betrayals galore. The underground railway is put into action, Frederick Douglass (one of my favourite historical figures of the period, and I’ll recommend again his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave here in Project Gutenberg) makes a guest appearance, and famous spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow plays an important part. (I must confess I hadn’t heard of her before but the author’s decision of using her as one of her background characters is a great success).
The story flows easily and although there are no lengthy descriptions that deflect from the action, we get a clear sense of the locations and of the atmosphere of the period, including the abuse slaves were subject to, and the social morasses of the time, particularly the different treatment of women and the expectations of the genders and races. I was fascinated by the Washington of the period, the political machinations, and the fantastic description of the Battle of Manassas from the point of view of the spectators (as it seems that the well-off people decided it was a good occasion for a picnic and they ate and observed the fighting from the hilltop). The two main characters and Noah are likeable and sympathetic, although this is a fairly short story and there is no time for an intense exploration of psychological depths (their consciences struggle between complying with their duties and following their feelings but their conflict does not last too long). There is no time to get bored, and the ending will please fans of romantic historical fiction (although some might find it a bit rushed).
My only complaint is that the story is too short and more traditionally romantic than I expected (pushing the suspension of disbelief a bit). I would have liked to learn more about the Pinkerton’s role chasing spies during the war (one of the author’s characters in the Dolan Girls was also a Pinkerton detective), and I hope there might be a more detailed exploration of the underground railway in future stories (although the role of quilts to signal secret messages is discussed in one of the stories of Sewing Can Be Dangerous and Other Small Threads).
Recommended to fans of romantic historic novels looking for a short, enjoyable and thrilling read set in the early Civil War era. Another great story from S.R. Mallery.