When Johnny Came Marching Home

Written by William Heffernan
Review by Michael I. Shoop

Billed as an historical mystery, Heffernan’s latest explores how three boys met the challenges of a catastrophic war and the changes it wrought on each of them. Johnny Harris, Jubal Foster, and Abel Johnson, childhood friends in bucolic Jerusalem’s Landing, Vermont, are young adults when the Civil War breaks out in 1861. Signing up and marching out together, they believe it will be a grand and exciting adventure. The reality is much darker and grimmer than they could have imagined. By war’s end, Abel is dead and the two left are ruined men, physically or mentally crippled, leading different lives from what they had envisioned.

Moving back and forth in time, the well-paced narrative involves the reader with powerfully vivid descriptions of horrendous battles like the Wilderness and Gettysburg, of terrible raids on civilians, and of great physical and mental anguish suffered by the soldiers. Continually faced with stunningly graphic violence, the boys and their companion, the free black, Josiah, attempt to navigate the dangerous arena of the conflict.

Upon the survivors’ return home, Johnny has clearly become a cruel psychopath. When his murdered body is found in a village barn, suspects abound, from a domineering lumberman to a shifty former soldier to Abel’s stepmother. The one-armed Jubal, working as his father’s deputy town constable, investigates his former comrade’s murder, and his probing questions break open old wounds and set in motion events that will lead to the truth of Johnny’s death. In the process, Jubal rekindles his romance with Rebecca, Abel’s sister, who has secrets of her own. Heffernan skillfully presents a realistic and evocative tale of war and its lingering effects.