“I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.”
With the first line, Laird Hunt sets the tone for Neverhome, a novel about a woman named Constance who leaves behind her husband, disguises herself as a man, and joins the Union forces to fight in the Civil War. This novel isn’t quite what I was expecting, and at first, I was a bit underwhelmed. But as the weeks have passed, it has stuck with me in ways I didn’t expect.
Neverhome isn’t your traditional Civil War novel. You won’t come away from this book with greater knowledge of individual battles or the tradition of women disguising themselves as men to fight. You won’t learn much about the ins and outs of protecting a false identity or what the war was like for most soldiers. But what this novel does offer is really wonderful. This book subverts so many social norms of the time, and Constance’s story is told in beautiful, dreamy prose that nevertheless feels authentic to the time period.
As alluded to in the opening sentence, Constance’s marriage is not typical. She is the strong, bold person in her relationship, whereas her husband Batholomew is softer, more sensitive — qualities that weren’t valued in men in the 1860s. I loved seeing a relationship where the traditional gender roles are flipped this way. Their marriage is unique in other ways, too; they love each other deeply and have a much closer, passionate, and tender relationship than I would expect from many farming-class marriages of the time. This is just as much a love story as a war novel, and although I typically dislike reading about romance, I loved the way Hunt wrote their relationship.
As much as I admired Constance’s strength, it was easy to see where she got it from; as she reminisces about her deceased mother, we see an incredible role model. Constance was raised by a single mother, her father’s identity being somewhat questionable. And what a mother to be raised by! She belongs to the camp of fascinating, challenging, and memorable mothers in literature.
Although Neverhome wasn’t the book I was expecting it to be, my love for it has grown as it has marinated in my mind for the last few weeks. It’s a beautiful novel of an unconventional woman making her way in a dangerous world — and it has devastating ending that you won’t forget.
I received a free copy of this book at BEA.