Book Review | Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All – Allan Gurganus

oldI bought Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All at a thrift store for no reason other than it sounded vaguely familiar. I had zero expectations for this book and overall I’d say it was a good read. It wandered through about 100 years of southern history and told the story of, well, the widow to the oldest living Confederate soldier. There were some pretty problematic things going on though.

The book was written in sort of an interview format, though the only voice we read was that of the widow. She told her story, and that of her late husband, as she sat in a nursing home a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday.

With the exception of one tedious and pointless flashback, the story flowed very well. Despite being 700+ pages I remained engaged, for the most part. The dialect was used effectively, in that it told me a lot about the characters without sounding forced or being difficult to understand.

There were several sections that were incredibly moving. When the widow was 14 years old she was basically given to the ex-Confederate soldier for marriage. He was in his 50s. Initially she was fine with the arrangement – until they went on their honeymoon. The poor girl had absolutely no idea what sex was and was completely horrified when her husband forced himself on her. I found that entire passage very difficult to read.

The author told the story of many people, including the slaves who’d lived on the plantation of the ex-Confederate soldier. Their stories were also incredibly difficult to read. They all wanted freedom so badly and yet when they finally got it, they realized that they weren’t so free after all. With no money and no possible way to get jobs, they were basically just totally screwed. The book went back even further and described the slaves being kidnapped and brought to the new world. Once again, very hard to read.

Overall the author did a great job showing all sides of many different conflicts. For example, the ex-Confederate soldier signed up to fight for the Confederacy when he was 13 years old. He really had no concept of what they were fighting for – he just knew he was protecting his family and his property. War was complete and total hell for him and it not only stole his childhood but left him a bitter, angry person. He spent the next 90+ years engulfed in the memories of those few years at war.

While I did appreciate the author showing many sides, I also felt a little uncomfortable during parts of it. I don’t know, the idea of a white male showing me the perspective of how these slaves were in some ways better off being slaves, or how their owners were ‘good’ owners. . . well, it wasn’t all good.

I enjoyed this book but was never really completely engrossed in it. I might recommend it to a friend who was specifically looking for a novel about the human costs of the Civil War and the complexity of reconstruction, but I won’t be seeking out other works by Mr. Gurganus.

Currently reading: The Awakening and Select Stories – Kate Chopin & Hardball: A Season in the Projects – Daniel Coyle

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