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by Ava Dianne Day
Doubleday, March 2002
302 pages
ISBN: 038549470X

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The most brutal and costly war ever fought by this country was the Civil War or the War Between the States. Brother fought against brother, father fought against son, friend fought against friend. Casualties numbered more than we are willing to accept today, 620,000 Americans dead.

Many heroes came out of this war, but one of the most gallant and dauntless was the pint-size lady known as Clara Barton. Denied the right to join the nurses unit formed by Dorothea Dix, she set out to collect supplies, gained permission to move them to the battlefield, and, failing any other medical care, did what she could to save lives. She also kept notes of every soldier she saw hoping eventually to find their loved ones and tell them how they had lived and died.

Naturally there were many who opposed Clara Barton. Most men felt that women had no place on the battlefield and many doctors denied the abilities of female nurses. Other women were appalled at a woman being alone with men to whom she was not related. Few of us would have the courage to persevere against these odds.

Ava Dianne Day has written a thriller featuring this astonishing woman. After the Battle of Antietam and the bout of typhoid fever, she was sent to Hilton Head, South Carolina where there was a lull in the fighting. The Union occupied the area around Beaufort and were planning a campaign to seize Charleston, the only port left in Confederate hands. But for the time being things were calm.

There Barton met Colonel John Elwell, Quartermaster for the forces stationed there. He had been thrown from his horse and suffered a compound fracture. Barton was able to help him heal so that he did not lose his leg. In turn the two of them developed a very close personal relationship.

Meanwhile Clara was being stalked by someone, a discredited doctor apparently, who had plans for her. The Gullah community was seriously worried by a spate of missing children. And Clara Barton met a delightful young black man, Razz, who wanted desperately to learn to read.

Out of these fictional and nonfictional elements (Barton and Elwell are real; the rest fiction), Day has built a riveting and compelling story. Parts of the story are changes told from the point of view of the stalker, a man who has claimed a plantation deep in the forest and may be doing some sort of experiments there. We see him as he was altered and deteriorates. Clara, who has received very unpleasant letters from him, is of course concerned but has better things to do with her life.

The portrayal of Clara Barton is brilliant. She unfolds before our eyes, independent, sensual, but angry and hurt that she was rejected by Dorothea Dix just as she had been rejected by her mother. She is firmly convinced that she should never marry because that would prevent everything she must accomplish. And yet she is able to give herself to Elwell completely while she assures him they will never marry. And when cornered she is quite capable of working her way out of serious trouble.

Day puts the reader right into the story so that she may, as Clara Barton tells Razz, become one with the characters and the place. It is as though we have gone there ourselves and seen the battles and the soldiers and the Gullahs with our own eyes. We must use every sense, but the sense of smell is especially engaged with all the foul odors that come from death and disease and the humid aromas of the Lowlands. I was convinced that this was an accurate portrayal of Barton as well as the area around Beaufort in 1863.

There is an element of the supernatural about of this book. There is much we do not understand about the Gullah and conjuring. Annabelle, the conjure woman, is seeking her son George and is willing to summon a very evil spirit to help her. The reader may choose to believe that she did this or simply that she believes she did it. After all the unknown whether real or not has the capacity to terrify us.

This is a most enjoyable book. It provides suspense, intriguing characters, good historical background, and a whiff of magic.

Reviewed by Sally A. Fellows, July 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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