The American Civil War looms and then bursts into flame during this debut novel. Initially set on the West Tennessee farm of the Hallam family, the story moves to Charlestown, Richmond, and the battlefields at Shiloh, Manassas and Antietam. Although Hugh Hallam is against slavery on principle, he inherits his wife’s servants upon their marriage and buys several more to help run Palmyra. A northern newspaperman, John Varick is welcomed for a series on the real lives of slaveholders. Before he leaves, uncomfortable truths about the Hallams and their neighbors cause tension and estrangement.
But when Hugh is a Confederate prisoner of war years later in Washington, Varick remembers the family’s hospitality and comes to its aid. Aid also arrives from a more unlikely source, the escaped family slave known as French, who left the farm under mysterious and possibly criminal circumstances.
The Hallams are a dedicated, virtuous crew deeply devoted to each other. They covet neither neighbor’s goods nor spouses. They also suffer from the effects of Hugh’s pride and Serena’s willful ignorance. Neither recognizes slaves as fully human. Caught up in the momentous events of their time, missed opportunities and frustrations compound the story as it gallops to its inevitable conclusion.
Hallam’s War rages within and around its leading couple as it keeps a firm grip on its compelling, tragic time. Characterizations are complex, although sometimes circumspect to the point of sacrificing pace. Battle scenes of the Western theater of the war and its consequences are expertly depicted. The many viewpoint shifts sometimes seemed unnecessary, and the African Americans remained as elusive to this reader as they were to their owners. A promising debut from a gifted writer.