9.14.2012

A Soldier's Secret: The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss, 387 pp, RL 5


A year ago I had the pleasure of reviewing the fantastic nonfiction picture book Nurse, Soldier, Spy written by Marissa Moss and illustrated by  John Hendrix. Although a mere 32 page picture book, both Moss and Hendrix did extensive research and the book included an author's bibliography, artist's bibliography, glossary and index. No doubt this wealth of knowledge, as well as the compelling subject matter lead Moss to write A Soldier's Secret: The Incredible True Story of  Sara Edmonds, a Civil War Hero. Although Hendrix does not provide illustrations for this new book, Moss does include photographs from the war which give weight and verity to the sometimes unbelievable aspects of the Civil War, from the astounding casualties to the appalling conditions the soldiers lived in, to the horror of combat. By turning Sarah Edmonds's story into a novel, Moss is able to use the incredible, brave actions of Edmond's life and give depth to her character, showing readers just how hard it was to pass as a man, how dangerous it was and what aspects of herself she had to suppress in order to be the soldier she wanted to be. And, as with her first book on Edmonds, Moss includes over twenty pages of factual information regarding the historical events and people portrayed in this book, as well as timeline of the war and a list of suggested reading.

Edmonds was born and raised on a farm in Canada in 1841. Narrating her own story in A Soldier's Secret: The Incredible True Story of  Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero, Edmonds tells of a cruel and sometimes brutal father and the backbreaking farm work she does because her frail brother is incapable. When her father sells her beloved horse Trig, Sarah is desolate. When, a few months later, her father says that he, in effect, has sold her off too, offering her hand in marriage to an elderly neighbor, Sarah makes a decision that will change her life. Doing the work of a boy and told by her father that she has the ugly looks of a boy, it doesn't seem like a big step when Sarah cuts off her hair, puts on her brother's clothes and runs away in the middle of the night, burying her dress in the forest along the way, choosing to go by the name Frank Thompson. Crossing into America, Frank makes his way to Hartford, Connecticut where he takes a job as a traveling book salesman. Devouring the books he sells allows Frank to "describe each story so enthusiastically to my customers, I rarely missed a sale." Freedom, travel, success and happiness follow, although Frank is always aware of what he has traded in order to achieve this. Reflecting on this he notes, "For a young woman alone, everything would have been difficult - traveling, working, finding shelter. But as a man I could do anything. I could hop rides on carts, chop firewood for a meal, sleep in a barn and feel completely safe. . . I crossed the border from Canada into the United States, trading bridal finery for trousers, trading soft "Sarah" for strong "Frank," trading countries even, without a single regret. Once I discovered the exhilaration of taking big strides unhindered by heavy skirts, even after I was far from Pa's reach, I couldn't put a dress back on." At nineteen, after being turned away the first time for being too young, Frank Thompson is allowed to join the Union Army and fight to end slavery.

While the idea of a woman passing as a man and fighting in a war is fascinating, Edmonds did much more than fight - she was a nurse, a spy and a postmaster, an especially dangerous job since they carried important information and were thus the target of snipers. Moss suggests that some of Edmonds's impetus for these bold acts of bravery are spurred by the camaraderie and deep friendships that emerge between her and her fellow 2nd Michigan Infantrymen. Tent mate Damon Stewart is a man's man and Frank finds it easy to connect with him over bawdy stories, burps and farts, realizing that the more crass she acts, the less attention she draws. The two of them form a bond that serves both well over the course of the war, Edmonds's saving Damon's leg in a time when amputations were a common form of treatment. However, in Jerome Robbins, Edmonds's makes a true connection. Perhaps because she is a woman, Edmonds is a compassionate nurse, writing to the families of the wounded and the dead, fulfilling last wishes and receiving letters and gifts of gratitude in return. Jerome proves to be equally compassionate and hardworking and the two spend many hours side by side tending to the wounded and many hours outside of the hospital talking long into the night. However, early on in A Soldier's Secret: The Incredible True Story of  Sara Edmonds, a Civil War Hero, Edmonds reveals her secret when Jerome, after announcing his engagement, insists that Frank be the best man at his wedding. In shock, Frank blunders and tells Jerome that he can't marry his sweetheart, then that he can't be his best man. Jerome assumes it is because Frank's mother was a slave, but Frank insists on making Jerome understand the truth. Uneasy with this revelation, both Jerome and Frank withdraw from each other and, in doing so, Frank takes on the dangerous roles of spy and postmaster, both of which come in recognition of his exemplary skills as a soldier.

Much of A Soldier's Secret: The Incredible True Story of  Sara Edmonds, a Civil War Hero is taken up with the dangerous exploits of Frank Thompson. And, while he sees action on the field, it is an odd assortment of injuries, at the hands of a demonic horse, a stubborn mule and the illness that will ultimately take his life, swamp fever, otherwise known as malaria. Through all this, Frank avoids being examined by a doctor, in part because his skills as a nurse allow him to tend to his own injuries and wounds. As a spy and postmaster, Frank also finds himself in intriguing situations, especially when he is sent to the homes of Southerners to ask for food for the troops. Although he has money to pay for the food, the folk are understandably less than hospitable and Frank finds himself in a situation where he is forced to shoot a woman in selfdefense. The implications of this reverberate through his time as a soldier and friendship with Jerome which, though intermittent at times due to the war, continues throughout the novel. While Jerome has seen Edmonds do any number of manly things and continue to admire his bravery, intelligence and compassion, this incidence is one that troubles Thompson and causes him shame when it is revealed to Jerome. As small aspect of the novel, perhaps, but I feel like it is an outstanding instance (among many) when Moss's writing and psychological exploration of what it means to be a woman posing as a male soldier is at its best. Another passage that struck me came in the middle of the novel. Acting as an orderly for General Philip Kearny, a job more dangerous than that of postmaster, requiring Thompson to ride back and forth between generals in the heat of battle, delivering messages, Thompson expresses this emotion as he crosses the dangerously swollen Chickahominy River, the Rebel yell echoing in his ears, and Union reinforcements charging behind him, "I'm drenched and cold but feel the surge of power echo from the soldiers back to me. I'm part of something much bigger than myself, a single muscle in a tightly coiled body - it's thrilling, terrifying, immense." A vivid piece of writing, I couldn't help but think that, in this day and age, even with all the freedoms (First World) women have been granted by men, often grudgingly, a woman still cannot (honestly, as herself, anyway) experience war in this way.

Of course, Moss also covers other fascinating aspects of a woman's experience passing as a man. Menstruation, and going to the bathroom create some interesting dilemmas. She also depicts Edmonds's experience nursing men at a time when socially, the sexes never saw each other naked outside of wedlock. One of my favorite passages comes when Thompson is about to undergo a medical examination to make sure he is fit to serve as a spy. Fretting over what this will entail, Thompson wonders if her lower regions will need to be checked and thinks, "Really, I don't know anything about men's bodies except what I've seen in the hospital. I can't imagine sitting on a horse with that extra bit in the way. My God, I think, Jerome has that problem, and so does Damon, and Dr Bonine, and the chaplain, and the officers right in front of me. I can't look at any of them now without wondering what pant leg holds that extra central leg ad how does it keep from getting squashed when they sit down?" How Thompson leaves the military, returns to life as Sarah Edmonds and lives out her life is an interesting end to a compelling life story and Moss wraps it up beautifully, meaningfully and even a bit tearfully. While there are enough amazing, enthralling aspects of Sarah Emma Edmonds's life to write a great book solely based on the facts, Marissa Moss, with her novel, brings a depth of emotion and insight to this remarkable life that makes it even more compelling. A Soldier's Secret: The Incredible True Story of  Sara Edmonds, a Civil War Hero is historical fiction at its best - a story that stands out in time but is relevant even today.



Sarah Emma Edmonds


Readers who liked this book might also enjoy the entirely fictional but equally compelling Red Moon Over Sharpsburg, by Rosemary Wells, which is also a Civil War story featuring a strong female protagonist.

Source: Review Copy

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