At the battle of Antietam Creek, the bloodiest single-day battle of the American Civil War, Union surgeon Anson Baird gratefully accepts the unsolicited help of a mysterious, long-limbed soldier in dealing with the unrelenting carnage. Before the battle is over, Baird has not only saved the life of the young soldier, John, but has unwittingly preserved his astonishing secret.
When the pair meets again nearly 20 years later, John needs Baird’s assistance to survive in the harsh world of the Canadian salmon canneries of Fraser River, British Columbia. Try as he might, he has been unable to shake his past completely, and his rivals are willing to use any information, real or fabricated, in order to destroy him.
This is a thoughtful novel, raising many questions about the political, humanitarian and interracial complexities surrounding the Civil War and the reliability of a friendship forged and tested only in crisis. Bowling, an award-winning poet, novelist and Fraser River native, clearly loves language, and his use of detail also shows his love of the historical periods he covers. I particularly enjoyed his depiction of the ‘war tourists’ who gathered in their Sunday best to watch the Rebels fighting with lace hankies over their noses to block out the smell of the dead and dying. With graphic depictions of the war and the brutalities of slavery, however, this novel may not be for the fainthearted.