Secrets in a House Divided: A Novel of Civil War Richmond

Written by Clara Silverstein
Review by Michael I. Shoop

During the summer of 1864, young wife and mother Amanda Ayers Carter is struggling to survive with her daughter Nell in their Richmond home while her husband Edwin is off fighting for the Confederacy. Having lived in the shadow of Edwin’s first wife, and alone due to her husband’s military service, the lonely Amanda becomes enamored of a soldier she nurses at a local hospital. Finding herself pregnant, she contrives to hide it for a while, but when discovered, she’s harshly dismissed from the hospital and given little support by the baby’s father, who reveals he is already both married and a father. With little money, the city in crisis, and in her condition, Amanda realizes her only support is from her enslaved maid, Cassie, and the two devise a desperate plan. But Cassie has a plan of her own: she wants to leave the Carters and become free, free to discover the whereabouts of her husband and her children and possibly to make a new life with them.

Silverstein deftly weaves together the stories of two women in conflict with the times they live in, with each other, and within themselves. Their situations show that life’s choices aren’t always clear-cut, and there are often hard sacrifices to be made. The novel is smoothly written, with good use of period detail and the atmosphere of a city in turmoil, and with humanly flawed characters facing extreme circumstances. She shows a fine grasp of local Richmond geography and her use of place names like Church Hill and Shockoe Valley add authenticity to her narrative (only one quibble: Monroe Square wasn’t named as such until 1869). Overall, a satisfying read.