Young Henry Fern vows revenge against the Yankees who wounded him and killed his stepfather during an 1861 raid on Florida’s Cedar Key salt works. Helped by the narrator, Ben, he kills some Yankee soldiers, and then they set out on a quest that lasts the whole war. Foreseeing the eventual defeat of the South, Henry tries to convert $40,000 in Confederate paper money he took from horse thieves into property or specie. The author creates tension by regularly reporting the falling worth of the paper money, rather like a timer on a potential bomb.
Lovers of character-driven stories will be disappointed in this book. None of the characters are emotionally involving. Henry is almost too good to be true: he is a crack shot, can forge any signature undetectably, relatives and the followers he picks up during their journeys go along with his ideas and pronouncements without question, and despite being a civilian, he dictates military strategy to an army captain. We do get inside Ben’s head, being the narrator, but he doesn’t change much during the course of the story. He just reports on what Henry does. Another quibble: Henry and Ben travel with almost unbelievable ease between and through the Union and Confederate armies, helped by their medical knowledge and Henry’s pass-forging skills.
Given the extreme popularity of anything to do with the U.S. Civil War, the weak characterizations may not be a problem for the many readers who prefer plot-driven adventure stories to character studies. And they will enjoy learning about lesser-known aspects of the war, such as Florida’s participation, Sherman’s “white slave” trains, and how some people survived economically. The author based many events in the book on stories passed down through his family.