The Underground River

Written by Jeanne Williams
Review by Sarah Johnson

These novels, the first to appear from Spur-award winning author Jeanne Williams in six years, form the Beneath the Burning Ground trilogy: an epic saga of several families’ struggles to survive the Civil War years along the Kansas/Missouri border.

In The Underground River, Christy Ware is a tomboy adolescent in the late 1850s, helping her family and neighbors build the Wares’ first home. With Dan O’Brien, an Irish teenager, Christy discovers an underground cave that later serves as a hiding place along that larger secret conduit, the Underground Railroad. The Wares stand fervently against slavery, though their wealthy Missouri neighbors, the Jardines, are longtime slaveowners. When one of the Jardines’ slaves escapes, the Wares risk their lives to shelter him in the cave. John Brown makes an appearance, and although the Wares hate his drastic methods, they admire his abolitionist beliefs.

The beginning sections of the first book proved difficult, since they introduced too many new characters at once, and some conversations seemed designed to feed the reader historical detail. Despite these slow bits, this is an engrossing trilogy about the physical and emotional damage wrought by war, and how war forces people to make decisions they don’t fully agree with. The author describes the Civil War experience from all possible angles: Union and Confederate; black, white, and Indian; rich and poor; in battle and on the home front. Williams’ Arizona Saga remains my favorite among her work, but these novels should prove worthwhile reads for family saga and Civil War fans.