This is a fictionalized account inspired by the life of the true Billy Laird, the only American Civil War soldier from the state of Maine to be tried for desertion. Billy’s mind “just don’t work the way most folks’ do”; he never learned to read or write and can’t figure change. When his friend Harry, the only one in town who’s ever stood up for him, enlists to go fight the Confederacy, however, Billy goes against his father’s advice and joins as well. Billy manages all right with Harry’s help until his fear of gunfire is shifted to an artillery brigade to help care for the horses. Men in the new brigade are merciless to him for his simplicity, so he decides to follow the star his father pointed out to him to return north. He is not far from his posting when he comes across Elijah, a fleeing slave who is almost dead from his exertions. Together, they follow the underground north, one covering for the handicaps of the other.
This first novel is a glorious tour de force. Never have I read a more compelling and sympathetic portrayal from within the mind of the mentally challenged. The dialogue in particular is good, with just a few glitches to throw the reader out. Otherwise, I did not come up for breath as the story rolled along, every beat strong and right. Do not limit this moving tale to young adult readers, as the cover suggests.