Last year I discovered a lovely book called I Shall Be Near to You: A Novel. You can check out the review I did on my other blog, Strahbary’s Fields. I Shall Be Near to You, is the story of Rosetta as she dresses like a man to fight in the Civil War alongside her husband.I had the opportunity to talk with the Author Erin Lindsay McCabe about her book and the research process.
The role of a historical fiction writer is very similar to an archeologist in my opinion. You have to piece these pieces of history together to get something that feels like a living breathing person. Rosetta for example is loosely based on a real person. What were some of the challenges you faced in creating her character?
Erin: In some ways it felt as though Rosetta arrived fully formed—I understood her choices and her motivations from the beginning, and I often felt as though I was merely channeling this other person. Of course, I should say here that the story had been incubating for ten years before I ever wrote a word of it, so obviously during that time a lot of character development work was going on subconsciously. But there were other things about her that were very challenging. Because I had this character who wasn’t introspective, who didn’t particularly care about the politics or the ideology behind the war (which is very true to the content of letters the real Rosetta wrote home—she mentions the New York draft riots once and black men enlisting as well as white men once, and that’s it), I sometimes struggled with how to provide insight or context about the war from her point of view, and also how to sneak other points of view into the novel (often I did this through letters or conversations with other characters who did care more the reasons for the war), to give the novel a bit of a wider lens. Also, Rosetta’s personality was very dominating and I had to work to develop some of the other characters and find ways to get to know them that weren’t just filtered through Rosetta. She would have overpowered everyone if I’d let her.
There is not much focus on feminism and women becoming involved in the Civil War efforts (more of the focus traditionally being during World War II). Was Rosetta’s story more of a unique one or were there many examples of women challenging the status quo in an active way?
Erin: There were so many ways that women were actively challenging the status quo during the Civil War. There were the 250 or so documented female soldiers, some of whom used their male identities in order to vote for the first time. There were the female spies who served on both sides—women like Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Belle Boyd, Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary Bowser, Pauline Cushman and many others—some organizing entire spy rings. There was Clara Barton who had to convince the government to give her permission to take supplies to the battlefields and work as a nurse and Dorothea Dix who was the superintendent of US Army female nurses. There was Dr. Mary Walker, who fought to be allowed to practice as surgeon during the war and saw herself as a women’s rights activist. There were the Nancy Hart Rifles, a women’s militia who protected their town (LaGrange, GA) from invasion. Neither the real Rosetta in her letters or Sarah Emma Edmonds in her memoir make the explicit connection between what they were doing and an intention to challenge notions of what women were capable of, but certainly they were. I think the most the real Rosetta ever says is that she will “dress as I have mind to,” which both is and isn’t a feminist declaration. I think many of the women were just doing what they felt like they had to do and weren’t necessarily trying to make a statement, but there were others, like the character Jennie in the novel, who had been making the connection between abolition and women’s rights for years (the Grimke sisters in the 1830s, Sojourner Truth in the 1850s), well before the war. And of course, women took over a lot of the farm work when the men left, which I think we notice less now because it seems like part of running the household? Or maybe it seems less remarkable because it was work they were probably already doing before? But in truth, they became responsible for entire farms, at a time when a woman couldn’t own property. And they were also collecting supplies for bandages, sending food and clothes to soldiers, and all of those supportive things that women so often do during wartime. Women were really involved in the war effort on every level, in many of the same kinds of ways that women were involved during WWII, just maybe not on the same scale, and often times not in officially sanctioned or recognized ways.
Were there some surprising facts or stories that you discovered in your research?
Erin: There were so many! Sometimes it was just little details that I found in letters that surprised me—one example being the Confederate soldier who sent home a ring he’d carved from a bone found on the battlefield. That was a detail I never would have imagined in a million years, but I thought it spoke so clearly of the impact that combat might have on a soldier’s psyche. But probably my favorite surprise was learning about the women (at least six) who served as soldiers while pregnant. I especially love the story of a New Jersey woman who fought in each trimester of her pregnancy, was promoted two times—once after being wounded at Antietam and again after fighting at Fredericksburg during the last month of her pregnancy. No one realized she was pregnant until she went into labor while on picket duty! There were also two women who were prisoners of war and gave birth while imprisoned. They could have used their sex or their pregnancies to garner release, but they didn’t. These women’s dedication and determination just astounds me.
Your story moves from upstate New York and down into Virginia and Maryland. These locations are just as important to your narrative as the characters themselves. Did you go to great lengths to research what these areas were like in the 1800s?
Erin: My initial research was pretty straightforward—looking at historic and current photos, tracing troop movements on battle-maps, reading contemporary descriptions of the areas, studying field guides to learn about the native flora and fauna, learning about farming practices. I had also been to Bull Run when I was 18, so I had some memories of that battlefield that I could draw on. But once I had written a complete draft and I knew exactly where my soldiers were going to be, it became very important to me that I actually visit the battlefields and trace their footsteps. I made a trip Back East to each of the battlefields that appear in the novel and marched as much of the soldiers’ route as I could. Even though many of the revisions I made to the novel as the result of those days on the battlefields probably seem very minor, the experience of being on the battlefield, the confidence it gave me to really understand the landscape, the emotional sense I had of those places on the battlefields where certain events of the novel happen, that was huge. Just walking through the Cornfield at Antietam and feeling like I really knew the kinds of things the soldiers went through there, and trying to see that space the way they might have was very moving, very sobering, incredibly sad, and I hope I was able to translate that onto the page.
What were some of your challenges in making the battle scenes?
The battle scenes were some of the hardest scenes to write. I was worried about writing them at all, just because I’ve never experienced combat or anything like it and I wanted to get it right. And then, just occupying that mental space for the months it took me to write those scenes, imagining the horrors of battle and really trying to put myself in my characters’ shoes, was pretty awful a lot of the time. But on a more practical sense, the most difficult parts of the battle scenes were researching troop movements during the battles and researching what the soldiers might have realistically experienced (and then figuring out a way to translate that into something I could put on the page). I spent quite a bit of time reading historians’ accounts of the battles that appear in the novel, always with a focus on my particular regiment. The hard part was figuring out which parts of the battles Rosetta’s company would have actually participated in, because historians tend to focus more on the regiment as a whole rather than the individual companies. The same thing is true for battle maps, which I also pored over. I really wanted to get the movements as accurate as possible (though in the end some of the timeline, especially in the lead-up to the battles, got compressed—there was a lot of wandering around in reality that doesn’t make for riveting reading). That part was not very enjoyable, though it was very important to me that I get the history right so that I honored and paid tribute to the real soldiers and so that no stupid mistake on my part would make a reader question whether women really fought. That said, I am far more interested in the human experience of the war than of the tactics and strategies, so the research that resonated for me was reading soldiers’ letters and combing them for descriptions of what their battle experience was like. The difficult thing about that was often times the soldiers didn’t write about the horrors of battle. They kept a lot of those details back, whether because they didn’t want to relive those moments or because they wanted to spare their loved ones back home. Often I felt frustrated because I couldn’t necessarily find the kind of detailed description I wanted, but then other times I would stumble on an amazing, searing tidbit that really gave me a core image or idea to build around. Two examples of that are when Rosetta sees horses on the battlefield. I didn’t find many descriptions of the horses on the battlefield, maybe because seeing horses in that context wouldn’t have been surprising to a soldier then the way it seems incomprehensible to us now, but more than a million horses died in the war so they had to be all over the place. Anyway, one of those moments describes a horse galloping across the field, trailing what Rosetta first takes to be its harness but which is actually its entrails. That detail came straight out of a primary source. The other moment is when Rosetta sees a horse go down on the embankment at Bull Run. The description of a horse going down like that, landing on its rider, was in a primary source, but then I filled in the details based on something I had witnessed myself, a horse who broke its leg at a barn where I kept my horses. So a lot of the battlefield descriptions are sort of a mix of something I found in my research that then allowed me to make a connection to a real moment that I could use to flesh out the experience and access emotions and images. The other thing I tried to do a lot was to push the emotion of each moment as far as I could—something Katharine Noel said once at a reading. The idea being, I know what it feels like to be nervous, I know what it feels like to be scared, so how could I push those emotions to the extreme. That was hard and uncomfortable, but I think it was worth it for the end result. I should also say, I reread books like The Things They Carried and Slaughterhouse Five, both written by authors who experienced combat, to get a sense of what kinds of things—emotions, experiences, images—they keyed on. Even though the battles and techniques of war were different, I think a lot of the emotional experience is very similar.
So go check out I Shall Be Near to You for your next read this summer.