Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: The Occupation of Eliza Goode

Summary: Two modern-day women unravel a family secret by following a trail of letters left by a Civil War prostitute, telling of shame, survival and the discovery of love. When Shelley Fraser Mickle's debut novel appeared in 1989, it was said of her main character, "You are about to meet one of the most appealing young ladies in recent American fiction." Now, in The Occupation of Eliza Goode, Mickle gives voice to a woman's story rarely heard.

Born into a New Orleans' parlor house in the mid 1800s and sold to be a courtesan on her seventeenth birthday, Eliza Goode flees her arranged future at the outbreak of the Civil War. In an ironic twist on the Underground Railroad, she is a white girl passed up through Mississippi's plantations from one slave quarters to another until she emerges at the Confederates' Camp Corinth to be swept along to the battle of Manassas. Along the way, she meets Bennett McFerrin and his wife, Rissa, whose love story represents that of many couples when wives followed their husbands to war.

Using guile and her extraordinary beauty, Eliza transforms herself from camp-follower prostitute to laundress, nurse, and caregiver to Rissa when Bennett is taken prisoner by Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Fort Donelson in Clarksville, Tennessee. There, in union-occupied Clarksville, Eliza's final transformation frees her from her past.

But in this meticulously researched novel, Eliza's story is more than a tale of war, transcendence, and hardship. It is a story told in modern times by Susan Masters, a novelist in Boston, whose cousin, Hadley, finds Eliza's letters in an attic and implores Susan to write Eliza's story to answer questions she seeks for her own life. Hadley has a shameful secret of her own—a past, about which she cannot even bring herself to speak.

Set in the first summer of the Iraq war and three years after 9/11, this is not your usual Civil War novel. This story says much about how we became who we are, and who we might have become, had the Civil War not saved us as a nation. -- Koehlerbooks

It seems like it's been awhile since I've read a historical fiction book. I used to devour them, but now I find it's rare that one appeals to me. However, when I read the description for THE OCCUPATION OF ELIZA GOODE by Shelley Fraser Mickle, I thought it sounded intriguing. Add to that, the starred Publisher's Weekly review, and it sounded like a winner to me.

THE OCCUPATION OF ELIZA GOODE tells the story of Eliza Goode, a young woman who grew up in a bordello in New Orleans in the mid 1800s. She is promised to a wealthy man on her seventeenth birthday, but rather than spend the rest of her life with him, she flees at the same time that the Civil War is beginning. Eliza travels through the South running from this man while also passing through slave quarters and military camps. She works many interesting jobs and meets many interesting people along the way. She also uses every bit of intelligence and instinct she has to survive.

There is no doubt that Eliza's story is fascinating. The author did a meticulous job of researching this time period and she effectively incorporated what she learned into this novel. I am a fan of stories that take place before, during and after the Civil War; and this book presented so much interesting history about what was occurring in the South as well as the living conditions at the military camps.

However, what really made this story unique is how the author chose to tell Eliza's story. The novel actually moves back and forward between Eliza's story and two cousins, Susan and Hadley, who live in present day. When Hadley discovers a stack of letters, she decides to share them with her cousin Susan who is a novelist. She asks Susan to make sense of Eliza's story and provide answers to Hadley's questions.

Naturally much of this novel was Eliza's letters, but there was also a story behind the letters that Susan created -- or filled in with her research and imagination. I admit that I think this presentation style was extremely creative, but I also found that it didn't always work for me. It did take me awhile to get used to the jumping back and forth, and I think I almost wanted more of Eliza's actual voice... if that makes any sense.

There was quite a bit going on with this novel. Not only was it Eliza's story, with Susan's interpretation of it, but there was also an underlying subplot about Hadley, the cousin who discovered the letters. Hadley was a mess when she initially met with Susan, and it only got worse. It was obvious that Hadley had some major issues that she was trying to resolve, and she was looking to Susan's story to help her.

THE OCCUPATION OF ELIZA GOODE would make an interesting book club selection. Eliza's story is extremely interesting, but there is also enough about the characters and their actions which is discussion worthy. Some topics you might want to explore include love, forgiveness, redemption, hope, second chances, guilt, and secrets.

I recommend THE OCCUPATION OF ELIZA GOODE to fans of historical fiction, especially books set around the Civil War.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


bermudaonion said...

I do like the use of letters but you know me and historical fiction. For some reason, the Civil War period generally doesn't appeal to me. I'll have to think about this one.

Karen White said...

I love the sound of this - will look for it!