In 1869, Martha Cairnes walks up to the porch of a hotel in Jarrettsville, Maryland, where a group of ex-Union soldiers are celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. There, in front of fifty witnesses, she shoots Nicholas McComas, her former fiancé and the father of her child, in the chest. As Martha prepares to go to trial to face an almost certain verdict of guilty, Nixon goes back to the days immediately after Lincoln’s assassination to answer the question of why Martha killed the man she loves.
Narrated from a variety of perspectives, including those of Martha, Nicholas, and a host of witnesses and family members, Jarrettsville tells the story of a love affair gone wrong, against the grim backdrop of a Reconstruction-era Maryland where old wounds still fester. The novel is all the more interesting for being based on an episode from Nixon’s own family history—an incident that the author tells us was hushed up by the family until the author’s mother and uncles rediscovered it in the 1950s.
This is a well-researched and well-executed novel, and its various narrators all have distinctive styles. Though I never warmed to the characters—which may be more the historical record’s fault than that of the author—Nixon portrays the period vividly, and she has a particular flair for courtroom drama.