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Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

The Big Picture Review (1 of 3)

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus is gigantic and time consuming. In total, it took me about nine months to read. It’s daunting because it both takes up time in hours but also takes a long time to progress from page to page. I’d spend between twenty and thirty minutes a day reading this book—but each session only advanced me ten to fifteen pages. By the way, the book is over 700 pages long. Using a reading app, I spent 28 hours, 7 minutes, and 7 seconds of real time reading this book. It’s a bulky behemoth.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All is Epic in Scope and Ambition

Writing about Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All is a tough task to undertake. It’s so comprehensive, so varied, and so willing to build out an entire cast of characters that by focusing on any portion of the book I might potentially ignore other equally worthy sections.

Written as a long-form interview with the widow of the oldest living Confederate veteran, the story alternates between past events ranging from the Civil War through to the 1980s. Lucy Marsden, the protagonist and narrator, really does tell all.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All Book Cover

The book starts from the beginning of her husband’s life (and he’s 35 years older than her) and takes the reader through the near end of her own (she’s 99 at the finish of it). She details the full life of her husband, William Marsden, and her husband’s former slave Castalia along with a few other side characters.

I’ve always enjoyed learning about the Civil War, but I haven’t read a book that has brought so many different perspectives, environment and cultures to life as this one.

The Novel Starts Slow

I nearly put this book down. But after pushing through the first 100 to 150 pages, I recognized that I’d been lucky enough to find one of the strongest pieces of literature I’ve read in a long time. If you are considering giving up, try to reach the center of the book. It’s worth it!

Although you will traverse the pages at a frighteningly slow pace, don’t fear, you will enjoy some of the better contemporary writing available. From the sentence level to the narrative voice, from unique characterization to intricate plot, Gurganus shows his skill on almost every single page. It offers challenging moments but the pay offs are big in this novel. Once you see where he’s taking you, you won’t put it down after that.

Gurganus Packs Power in Every Paragraph

Despite the real world time and page counts moving slowly, I am awed by Gurganus’ ability to fit so much detail, character work, and plot into a single page. You can live through a decade of time, experience tragedy, reflect on it and finish back in the present day (of the late 1980s). Flipping back, you’ll discover that all of that happened over a two-page span. Somehow, the prose feels detailed and well-paced. Gurganus writes so efficiently it allows him to pack in huge amounts of information while also surveying more than a century of time.

When I read a novel, I want the prose to offer little nuggets of spot-on observation or a small truth (not to be confused with sweeping, grandiose, or preachy claims). Lucy’s attitude and humor provide these moments over and over again. Her observations about emotion, societal trends, or other characters feel, if not accurate, at least emblematic of her own viewpoint.

A Civil War Book With an Absent Civil War

One item to note: if you want a book focusing on the battles and events of the war, you may want to find another book. Although probably a historical fiction, this book doesn’t sit comfortably in that genre. History buffs might get annoyed that the major battles get missed or casually mentioned in a sentence or two.

My initial expectations were that the book would function similar to a war novel. Although the war pervades every story in the novel, it tends to focus on the auxiliary effects of the war. Most of the book focuses on domestic events rather than battles. When describing soldiers, the events take place in camp, rather than in battles.

It’s a savvy choice by Gurganus that provides perspectives that a casual reader might not think about or might gloss over when discussing the Civil War. Temper the expectations for fast-paced action and the novel will be more than satisfactory.

More to Come on Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All

Due to the size of this book, I’ve split this review into three sections. The following blogs will include deep dives into the characters of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and some of the strongest stories from this vast novel. Read Part 2 and Part 3 here.

For now, I’ll finish by saying that the book receives high praise from me. I will absolutely be adding Allan Gurganus’ other novels onto my list of must-reads after finishing this book.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All Book Cover Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
Allan Gurganus
Literary Fiction
Vintage Books

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