On the surface, Laird Hunt has written a touching tale about a woman’s love for her husband and the sacrifice she made for him. She went off to fight in the Civil War, leaving him, the weaker one, behind. Since Constance was more masculine in her demeanor and Bartholomew was more feminine, they reversed roles, and he remained at home to tend the farm. Constance Thompson became Ash Thompson and broke her husband’s heart when she left as an entirely different person.
The “Ballad of Gallant Ash” could be an alternate title for this book. Constance needed to join the cause of the Union Army in order to protect her husband and challenge the pain she always carried within her heart and mind. Since her husband was not a tough enough person to go and would certainly meet his death, she donned the clothes of a man and left, hoping to return at the war’s end. Chasing her own fears in the process, she often wondered if fear would find her instead, as her mother had once predicted.
The beauty of the tale is that it is narrated by Constance/Ash, a tough Indiana farmer’s wife, in a voice that is genuine and authentic as a female, but her actions are also credible in the role of a male. Since she is comfortable in the outdoors and is a competent hunter, she is able to use her wiles and her expertise with a gun to protect herself. She is more capable than most of the new recruits, so she quickly makes herself a legend-like soldier, able to do most of what is required proficiently.
The tragedy of war, and what it extorts from enemy and ally alike, is so clearly drawn that when the final page is turned, the reader is almost more than a witness to the events; the reader is almost a participant. The descriptions of the battles are matter of fact, expressed in the simplest of terms, yet they put you in the thick and thin of the fray. Most of the emotion is removed, and only the clear and very concise telling of it remains, describing all of the causes and effects of particular moments in battle, each one almost more significant than the other, if that is possible.
Below the surface, it is a fast, but painful read as it feels like a confession, spoken in the most uncomplicated and honest terms. The sheer simplicity of the tale, in so few words, evokes all the pain of slavery, the agony of war, the depth of lost love and lost children, the enormous sacrifice required and the devotion and loyalty war sometimes inspires in spite of the betrayal it often witnesses. It is quite remarkable in its portrayal of the Civil War. The development of the main character is superb. As her persona changes, from male to female, and back again, she remains a true representation of the female/male soldier and that masquerade that existed during the war.
The tale truly acknowledges the ugliness, violence and hypocrisy of war and shows the soldiers displaying fear and mistrust, disloyalty and deceit, cruelty and shame. It also shows the devotion of those either left behind or actively fighting, to their loved ones and their country, even as it displays, loud and clear, the utter waste war leaves behind, the sheer madness and fear it produces, and the senselessness of the inflicted pain, injustice and retribution, which only lead to more heartache and tragedy in a never ending spiral.
In the language of the poor farmer, without much education, with its own ungrammatical charm, it felt as if Constance/Ash was speaking directly to me. At other times it felt almost like a personal diary, a simple relating of the facts of the day, as she wrote her letters, or spoke with others. As she documented the experiences she witnessed, even when filled with horror, they almost seemed mundane. It seemed as if Ash was becoming more and more inured to the brutality of the war but also completely imbued with its horror and a need for revenge. Her need to extract retribution for the injustices done to herself and her family were eventually her tragic undoing.