Framed by the gift of roses, everything in between this debut novel is haunted by the body- and soul-stealing times of the American Civil War. News of the impending hostilities reaches John Muro just as he’s trying to convince his mill-owning family that he’d like to study medicine. Although he had his heart set on studying in the North, John enters the University of Virginia.
There he realizes that “the greatest triumphs come from unbearable pain and exertion, of which I had experienced neither in my short and comfortable youth.” John advances in both his professional and personal life at an accelerated wartime pace as casualties stream in. He is guided by two mentors—instructor Dr. Cabell, who takes special interest in the bumbling young man once his niece Lorrie is smitten, and Lieutenant Stone, a wounded Union doctor who is also a physician and becomes John’s friend.
Meanwhile, the Muro family’s Lynchburg woolen mill fails. When creditors come to collect, John cuts himself off rather than share disgrace. At war’s end he is facing a failing new marriage, shortages and replacement in all medicines, and Yankee troops descending on Jefferson’s university. Thrown a lifeline from the north by Dr. Stone, he hatches an ill-fated plan to escape.
Short chapters and the intimacy and authentic language of its first-person narration enhance this view of the Civil War. Its callow protagonist is reminiscent of David Copperfield. John’s roommate B.B. even has the exuberance and overbearing pride of Dickens’ Steerforth. Like the heroes of Dickens, John Muro is forever baffled by the women in his life; viewed as manipulative mysteries, adornments, or paragons of physical beauty and support. A fine debut from a gifted storyteller.