So much happens in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All that it’s difficult to highlight specific stories without feeling like equally worthy parts have been ignored. More reason to read the novel in full!
Part of what makes this book so effective is how each story has webs that connect it into the others. They each contextualize past and future stories, adding depth and changing how a reader might perceive a past situation. Here are the ones that stood out to me most!
Told almost right way, Lucy tells her husband’s most famous war story—the tragic death of his best friend during the war. Due to its impact on Captain (Will) Marsden (and so Lucy and every other poor soul who deals with Cap’s sentimental side), it becomes the emotional center for the work. Cap fails to address his trauma while simultaneously refusing to ever move on from it. Many of his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities all appear rooted to the fateful day when Ned gets shot.
Ned and Will
Ned and Cap grew up together. They’d been friends before they went off to war and their experience during the
It had been a day off during the war. Everyone went to a nearby swimming hole and Ned climbed a tree for swinging. While his Confederate friends bathed and relaxed in a nearby pond, Ned gets shot by a Union sniper. After the tragedy, Cap tries to escape at night to kill Union soldiers in their sleep, but his unit ties him up to prevent him from committing suicide via the enemy.
The story does a nice job setting the tone of senseless violence early on. It also complicates the dangerously simplistic view of Union equaling good and Confederacy equaling evil. Instead, it shows the crimes and the humanity of both sides. The unprovoked murder of a young boy in the midst of a happy swim probably falls on the crime side of the checklist for the North.
The Day Sherman’s Army Frees the Slaves
The middle section of the book is without question the strongest part of it. Pages 200 to 400 take the book from good to exceptional. The highlight of this section is Lucille’s story about how Cap’s mother, Lady Marsden, burned her face during Sherman’s army’s march through town.
In middle school, Lucy had to write a paper about a town person’s experience in the Civil War. She interviews Lady Marsden and learns how she went from one of the most sought-after women in town to a deformed hermit who lived alone. Although starting as an exposé on Captain Marsden’s mother, the story actually focuses on the final day of slavery and the transition period that occurred right after the army’s arrival.
This Story Introduces the Full Cast
The story introduces all of the ex-Marsden slaves, giving insights into a young Castalia as well as a number of other slave characters that change significantly after the story finishes. Like the rest of the book, it moves between eras to create a fuller picture of each person involved.
For example, one slave Xerxes is so good at impressions that he goes on to become one of the first successful black performers after the Civil War. Rather than summarizing the boy’s later life, Gurganus provides a full chapter of the adult Xerxes return. Then, he returns to the Lady Marsden narrative as if nothing happened. Knowing his future not only gives insight into the boy Xerxes, but it also changes how we interpret his actions as a boy.
This story utilizes oral storytelling techniques extremely well to make Lucy’s narration incredibly realistic. These jumps portray how an old narrator with the benefit of hindsight (of a person’s entire life) alters how they’d tell the story of that person’s childhood.
The Day of Arrival
In the story, the slaves know that the union will arrive in the next few days to free them. They have been secretly removing valuables from the mansion since everything will burn otherwise. Lady Marsden is in a state of denial, continuing to play piano while the slaves dote on her. Knowing she will be free soon, Castalia tells Lady Marsden about her people’s capture and forced slavery (the third story I will highlight in this post).
The troops arrive and set the house on fire. In the shuffle, Lady Marsden gets knocked out too close to the fire. It mutilates her face. The Marsden slaves, with nowhere to go, keep her alive while they wait for her to wake up. Once she does, they make fun of her and tell her about how much they really hate her for her crimes against them. They talk about their separated families, the beatings, whippings, and emotional abuse they endured at the hands of the Marsden family. Despite this, they still nurse her to relative health and even show her how to pull water from the well once they leave.
An Imagined, But Believable Story
The story gives an imagined representation of the transitionary days after slavery had been forcibly ended in the South. I never once questioned the events. If the specifics might have transpired differently, Gurganus still got the major trends correct. History books tend to gloss over this transition. African Americans were enslaved and then they weren’t. This story takes a closer look at the awkward nature of such a sharp change in a small southern town.
Castalia’s Slave Narrative
The only portion of the entire book not narrated by Lucy, this story describes Castalia and her town’s capture, their journey over the Atlantic, and their sale to the various plantation owners in the US. In the rest of the book, Lucy controlled the narrative, and all information gets distilled through her perspective.
Castalia’s Turn in the Novel
She tells the story to Lady Marsden directly (though about 200 pages later). The story comes from her childhood memories and Castalia admits that many of her fellow slaves don’t believe she can have such a clear, chronological understanding of what occurred to her at such a young age.
From the reader’s perspective, it doesn’t matter that much. Having the slaves question Castalia offers another validation of how oral storytelling mutates over time. Facts may change, the teller’s believability may come into question, or the plot may get tightened and cleaned for convenience. Subtleties and contradictions may get removed to create clear protagonists and antagonists. Despite these factors, this narrative humanizes Castalia and helps to balance (and contradict) the white perspective given throughout the rest of the novel.
The Boat and the Journey
Castalia begins with her people’s life before their capture. Their mortal enemies were the people who lived nearest to them, but they never fought and didn’t interact. Everything changes the day a red boat appears on their shore. Red is sacred to their culture because they hardly ever see it. Only one bird in the jungle has that color and it holds high spiritual significance to them. They get on the seemingly empty boat to explore it, not knowing that slave traders had hidden underneath. Once on, the boat leaves, the slave traders emerge and they capture a significant portion of the town—including Castalia.
They get traded off and put on huge ships to cross the Atlantic. Castalia’s people get put below deck and chained. Over the course of the trip, they convince themselves that they had been captured because the whites wanted to learn the secrets of what made Castalia’s people so royal, powerful, and refined. The whites kidnapping because, as barbarians, it was the only method they understood. It would be up to Castalia’s people to offer them insights, religion, and civilization. Once they taught the whites the error of their ways, both groups of people would be able to live in peace, with the whites learning from them as students would learn from wise teachers.
The Slave Auction
Once they arrive, they get sent to a slave auction, which they mistake for a ceremony associated with their new teaching role. They receive new, honorable names from the white men (which in reality are their sale prices). The story finishes with the sale of Castalia’s people’s enslavement. She ends with a screed against Lady Marsden—listing her crimes that she committed directly and indirectly against Castalia and her family.
Read More f
rom Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
These 3 stories highlight some of the best parts of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. There are probably about a dozen more to be had. Read the general review of the book (Part 1) or about the specific characters in the book (Part 2). Or pick up a copy and read the book itself. It’s one of the books I’ve read in a long time.