After the Civil War is over, John Bell Hood, defeated Confederate general, moves to New Orleans seeking a future. The war has irreparably scarred him, changing not only his view on life but his very body; he’s missing a leg and the use of one arm. In New Orleans he meets a woman to love, Anna Marie Hennen, has almost a dozen children, and finds himself enmeshed in a society and a history that is not his own, which he finds he must pull apart in order to properly understand, until the yellow fever takes everything.
Civil war fiction is always a tough sell with me and I have no idea why. Fleetingly, I hoped Robert Hicks could buck the trend, as a few notable authors had done before, but unfortunately this book did not strike a chord with me. Strange, because it focuses on a fascinating historical figure and his transformation from an arrogant man into a humanitarian one. New Orleans itself is fascinating and I found myself looking up its history as I went along (only on wikipedia, but still!). I really enjoyed the characters’ forays into the forests and the conflicts between the Creoles and the Americans, not to mention the depiction of changing attitudes towards race. A Separate Country has plenty of interesting hot button topics to consider, even more as the novel moves towards a conclusion.
The book is told through a trio of important characters. The first is Eli Griffin, an iceman, who would never have been in New Orleans or anywhere near General Hood if not for his family’s fate in the war. Eli has been entrusted with Hood’s book, a memoir, ensuring that it makes publication. Fulfilling Hood’s dying requests makes up his part of the book; other sections are told from Hood’s perspective from the war to his death and the rest of the chapters are from Anna Marie’s viewpoint, written to her daughter Lydia as she is on her deathbed. These are not spoilers, we gather this information in the first few pages of the novel.
I think overall the problem for me with the book is that none of these characters were particularly compelling. I find it difficult to sympathize with this Confederate general. His arrogance and blindness at times is overwhelming and even his moves towards a more likeable personality didn’t quite pull off redeeming him in my eyes. The worst, though, was Anna Marie, who admits that she is shallow, finds her children a burden after the first one, and inadvertently causes misery for almost all of her friends. Normally I like when characters are made more human due to their flaws, but to be honest, these had me driven up the wall.
I do think there is a good book here. It just is not a book for me.