Minus one section, Lucille Marsden narrates all of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Her voice, humor, and insights make each paragraph a delight to read. Though not traditionally educated, she’s acquired her wisdom through hardship, experience, and an innate ability to understand how people tick. Social, blunt, and cutting, she’s as clever as they come. Allan Gurganus creates a powerful narrator and an excellent partner for the reader while they probe her long and complex history.
Lucille’s Long, Complicated Life
Lucille lives a tough but rewarding life. Married off at fifteen, she endures a difficult marriage, though not a loveless one. Despite her repetitive and daily grind, she takes joy in raising her family and still loves her husband.
Lucille tells the entire story from her ripe old age of 99. Her perspective shades every story, from her time growing up through to when she cares for a bedridden Cap, and finishing with her current life in the local senior home. She has a sharp memory, though she forgets the occasional detail. She admits that she makes a few things up every now and then but that the big idea of her stories remains spot on.
The book moves through her childhood, her coming of age, her complicated sexuality, her social failings and loss of her best friend, through to the birth of her children, their lives, and eventual deaths. She survives her entire family, and the story ends with her alone, reflecting on her life in a small, state-run senior home. Starting from Cap’s boyhood and through to the narrative present, the historical fiction novel spans more than a century of time.
Oral Storytelling in Written Word
Gurganus creates a novel, through Lucy, that stay true to the nature of oral storytelling that most books cannot achieve (whether due to their design, the point of view, etc.). The story does not get told chronologically, but topically. Lucille jumps from one time period to the next, focusing on thematic strings that tie her life together.
In many ways, this book carries similarities to a short story collection, with each book focusing on one major chunk of her life. However, it remains a novel because the reader needs information from previous sections to process changes that occur in later ones. Sometimes, different stories or books will cover the same period of time, but from a different angle or from another character’s viewpoint. The novel works
Will Marsden (Captain, Cap)
Over a 700-page book, you’d expect to have your view of a character change over its course. Captain Will Marsden engenders anger, pity, disgust, and respect. By the end of the novel, you might know more information about him, but he will be even more mysterious and confusing with each added detail.
He’s an excellent storyteller, and though his time serving in the Confederate army gets distilled through Lucy, he’s told his stories so many times that she knows the ins and outs of
Cap’s stories usually make him a sympathetic figure. He raced out to fight the war as a boy and his best friend was tragically shot. Each of his stories usually focus on other people and provide ground-level insights into the destruction of the greater war. Of course, there are also funny moments sprinkled in and moments of innocence as expected from a growing boy.
Cap’s a Tough Man to Love
His treatment of Lucy and his domestic life make him far less sympathetic. At 55, he marries a 15-year-old Lucy. On their wedding night, he takes her virginity with no thought to her physical or emotional welfare. He’s brutal and even when she’s in pain, he refuses to hold back.
Throughout their marriage, he never views her beyond a sexual object and homemaker. He loves her, sure, but within the frames of his understanding of men and women. He fits neatly into the masculine head of household. With this, comes his attitude that Lucy should be cleaning, cooking, and looking after the children. He never discusses household decisions with her and makes major changes to the home unilaterally. He beats her a few times in the story.
Cap Goes From Wine to Vinegar
Over the novel, Will Marsden ages poorly. As each year progresses, he becomes more war obsessed, harder to control and more violent. He spends less time at home and more nights out drinking and recounting war stories with other vets. He turns the house into a Civil War armory and buys so many guns that he has to store them under their marriage bed.
At the end of the novel, he has a stroke which makes him an outright senile. He can only repeat war stories. At times he fails to recognize Lucy or Castalia and vacillates between living as a vegetable and taking extreme action—usually violent or mischievous. Gurganus simultaneously makes Will Marsden frustrating and terrifying as well as pathetic and pitiable.
Captain Marsden appears in most of the book which details his entire spectrum of age and character. His attitude and ethics make him a deep, subtle, and conflicted person. His past creates his best and worst flaws. Lucy’s love for him is baffling at times and easily understandable at others. Every moment feels real and provides complexities that a veteran of the Civil War would have himself and foster in others.
Castalia Marsden grew up a slave for the Marsden family before becoming Cap’s paid housekeeper after the Civil War. A romance between the two gets hinted at consistently throughout the book, but naturally it can’t progress due to the racism and cultural expectations of their vastly different stations.
Rough Around the Edges
When Cap marries Lucy, Castalia treats the fifteen-year-old wife like a child (which she is) but Lucy can tell that it stems from a special kind of resentment towards her. Castalia is tough and infamous around town for her hard bargaining and cutting honesty.
When she was young, she was beautiful and inspired jealousy. As she ages she puts on more and more weight with each of turn of the page. As an adult, she inspires fear in strangers. She wears a hand sewn mink coat that grows over the book (as she adds new minks to it and grows more rotund). It becomes the main way that people recognize her and think about her.
She’s also the most trusted midwife in town, so much so she delivers all of the white women’s babies in town. Only after Lucy’s first child does their relationship soften a bit. Over the course of the book, they eventually become friends and confidantes.
Castalia Moves from Back to Center Stage
Castalia slowly takes a larger role over the course of the book. During the Lady Marsden story, she begins to take more of Lucy’s attention away from Cap. Eventually, she takes over narrating duties as well. Other than Lucy, she’s the only other character given a direct voice in the novel.
She offers an important balance to Lucy’s southern, white perspective. Often, Castalia gets shifted to the side or has her dreams put on hold based on the whims of whites in town. Only by sheer force of personality does she recover a small piece of what she’d otherwise earned and deserved. She exemplifies how slavery and post-slavery oppression negated her talent and hard work. She has a sad story in the book, but by the end, might be the most respected character.