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As Mann notes, we Americans might find ourselves philosophically closer to the Indian view of equality than to that of our own ancestors. He notes that children abducted, reared in Indian tribes, and then “found” often were brought back to the European community only to run back to the “wilds.” And, he notes, while the Pilgrims and other settlers tried to instruct the Indians in their European ways, it often turned out that the settlers adopted the ways of the Indians in order to survive.

One of the most fascinating bits from the appendices concerns the Maya. Anthropologists have long wondered why such an advanced civilization didn’t have any writing. Lately, however, attention has fallen on their artifacts called khipu. These consist of large master cords, with a series of smaller strings, each knotted to the master, but also bearing a series of knots tied in one of three different ways on each string. A few years ago, I saw one in a museum that was labeled as a counting device, but new theories and research indicate that it was probably a writing system, a 3-dimensional binary code, unlike any form of writing on earth.

The Spaniards recorded the history that the Maya khipu masters “read” to them using the strings, proceeding both visually and by fingering and sometimes manipulating black and white pebbles alongside as well. Then, in an effort to colonize and Christianize the Maya, the Spaniards burned all the khipu they could find. Something like 600 khipu survived, and at this point, many experts are trying to crack their code. One person has posited that the different colors of the various threads of the strings have special meanings, along with their materials – cotton, wool – and the spin and ply direction of the string, the direction of the knot, the direction of the main axis of each knot itself, etc. This would make possible something like 1,536 information units in each array.

If you can bear to part with this book after reading it, consider donating it to your local library or school. It would be a splendid addition to the shelf that bears books on the history of the Americas.

JS

The Widow of the South
by Robert Hicks, © 2005
Published by Warner Books, 418 pp

On November 30, 1864, in Franklin, Tennessee, there was a five-hour battle between an encamped Union Army and an attacking Confederate Army led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. It proved to be one of the bloodiest fights of the War Between the States. More than 9,000 soldiers fell that day, generals along with foot soldiers.

The Battle of Franklin is less familiar to us than more famous confrontations like those at Bull Run or Gettysburg or Atlanta, but Robert Hicks has revived interest in it with his prodigious research and dramatization of its events in his historical novel, The Widow of the South.

The core of his novel is a true story centered on a plantation called Carnton, and its owners, Colonel John McGavock and his wife, Carrie. Carnton was commandeered by the Confederates to serve as a field hospital during and after the battle, which the Union forces won.

John McGavock was made a colonel by virtue of his one wartime contribution, i.e. paying to outfit and arm all the Franklin men who volunteered for the Confederate Army. He never saw active duty, and his largesse in outfitting the troops put him deeply into debt. In the novel, he comes off as a fairly weak if earnest and honest man. His wife, 35-year-old Carrie, is the central character, and a strange one she is.

Carrie has borne five children, three of whom died young. The remaining two are seen briefly before they are sent away to relatives, to get them away from the horrors with which their home/hospital is filled. Four generals lie dead on the front porch; amputated arms and legs are tossed out the second story window and lie piled up “as high as the smokehouse.” Carrie and her slave, Mariah, must serve as nurses and cooks and maids-of-all-work for many weeks after the battle.

Carrie, daughter of a wealthy Louisianna plantation owner, has owned the Creole slave Mariah since her birth. Their relationship is an interesting combination of owner/slave co-dependency and an almost sisterly devotion to each other. Mariah is unafraid to speak her mind, and Carrie truly values Mariah’s strength and abilities.

At the time of the battle, Carrie has spent years in a deep depression, so crippled by the deaths of her three children that she has long ago turned over the running of her home to Mariah, who has handled the place with quiet efficiency. Carrie, meanwhile, has lived in darkened rooms, dressed in black, and moved almost ghost-like through her life.

The author of this novel has done a brilliant job of re-creating the historic period, the details of the battle, and the small town of Franklin (and its mix of characters). He is able to evoke not only the horror of the battle, but also its grisly aftermath. However, in his effort to explain Carrie’s development from her pre-battle self to the strong, active woman she becomes, he has taken the liberty of providing her with an extra-marital love affair, unconsummated but life-changing. The unlikely object of her affections is Zachariah Cashwell, a man whose life she saves when she insists that doctors amputate his leg, thereby earning his hatred which soon turns, aha!, to love.

It seems to this reviewer that spending time tending to injured and dying soldiers would be sufficient to drag Carrie out of her own miseries and to force her to focus on the needs of others. Adding an element of soap opera seems gratuitous. Carrie and Zachariah experience an instant attraction that appears to have no basis in common experience, ability, interests, etc., and doesn’t even seem to be compellingly physical. Their romance is the kind of movie or TV moment that is out of place given the period and circumstances of the novel, including a most unlikely moment when Carrie nearly beats the wounded Zachariah to death – because she loves him?

 

Widow of the South review, Healthy Aging review

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© 2005 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb
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