Holding Sweet Communion – A Debut Civil War Novel by Martha R. Brown

John J. Hohn, Author

#civilwar #confederacy #historicalletters #armyofnorthernvirginia #gettysburg

I have yet to write a review on my web site. Truth is, I don’t read very much. But Martha R. Brown and her husband Rod are friends of mine, and they knew of my interest in Civil War history. Consequently, when Martha reported finding a packet of letters that had been written by an ancestors of hers who fought for the Confederacy, I was immediately intrigued. When I asked to read the letters, Martha said that she was writing a novel using them in her story. When the book came out, she gave me a copy. I was moved by the her story and impressed with the way that she told it, so much so that I decided to write the review that follows. This review, for the most part, is also posted on Amazon.

I will follow on the Detroit piece as promised in a future post. Stay tuned. 

Holding Sweet Communion

Martha R. Brown’s debut novel, Holding Sweet Communion, is a bitter sweet story about a young couple living in North Carolina who endure months of separation during the Civil War. Nancy Jane DeArmond proudly sees her husband Aaron off to war when he enlists in the Confederate Army. At the time, most believed the war would last only a few months, and Nancy Jane returns to the couple’s farm to look after things during her husband’s absence. Arron’s side of the story is told through his letters to his wife, letters the author discovered among family keepsakes, and each is reproduced as written, which is sometimes challenging as Aaron spelled phonetically. In the end, the charm of his letters attests to the authenticity of their story—Aaron and Nancy Jane are true historical persons. It is Aaron who gives title to the book itself as he considers that task of writing his wife an act of “Holding Sweet Communion.”
Aaron attempts to conceal the hardships of his military duty as he writes. We learn that he participates in many of major battles with the Army of Northern Virginia including Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Ms. Brown weaves her narrative between the letters from Aaron and tells it through the eyes of Nancy Jane. Nancy Jane, too, tries to conceal her struggles in keeping the farm going as supplies and provisions become more and more scarce, and most of the labor falls to her with no hired or slave hands to help. Aaron writes that she needs to keep “the plow going every day,” and he instructs her to plant the wheat, corn, cotton, tobacco and sugar cane while making sure to “sprout the sassafras roots out.” All of this in addition to chopping wood, making clothes for her two young children, knitting socks, crushing berries to make ink and overseeing the butchering of the hogs. Throughout their correspondence, each expresses love for the other, and Nancy Jane’s private yearnings for her husband’s safe return flow eloquently from the author’s masterful delivery of the character’s thoughts and musings.

Issues of the Day

Ms. Brown has been meticulous in her research. She captures the colors, the aromas, and the sounds of primitive rural life. She pays special attention to the fauna and the flora. Nancy Jane tells her story honestly, admitting even to a fleeting if involuntary attraction to her brother-in-law, given Aaron’s long absence. The story moves forward as the reader is eager to find whether Nancy Jane’s pregnancy ends happily and whether Aaron returns to his family when the hostilities are concluded.

Ms. Brown does not shy away from the issues of the day. She follows Nancy Jane’s progression from a dutiful housewife, who takes Arron’s as the last word on everything, to a gritty woman who respects her own ideas and is self-assured in asserting herself. She despairs of the war and the death and suffering it causes. She pleads with Aaron to stay at home rather than return to duty after he is released as a prisoner of war. Aaron’s reasons for leaving the wife and family he loves must have been what kept thousands of ordinary men in the ranks of the Confederate army. Nancy Jane recognizes the humanity in the African-Americans in her community and becomes ambivalent about slavery. She looks the other way when slaves from nearby farms pass through her property on the underground railway. Her relationship with Pearl blooms well beyond the limits the values of the time would set between a free white woman and an African-American slave. Their regard for one another is compassionate and trusting.

Ms. Brown writes with a sure-handed, easy style, reverent in her care for her characters and the pastoral setting for her story. It takes a chapter or two for the author to hit stride with her narrative, but once she finds the voice for Nancy Jane, she confidently reveals her heroine’s inner most thoughts and feelings. Holding Sweet Communion is a powerful book about the average family’s day-to-day existence during the country’s most tragic decade in history. It is a must for anyone interested in the era, historical fiction, or wants an evening or two with a very engaging story.

Holding Sweet Communion is available on Amazon and the createspace book store.

Author’s Note: I compose my posts using Word and transfer to the word-processing program available through my web site manager. I use the spell check facility on both programs. I intentionally use incomplete sentences or fragments as a stylistic choice. Authors are notoriously bad a proof reading their own work. If any errors in the text escaped my attention, please do not hesitate to let me know. Please feel free to take a few minutes and look at the other pages of my web site.

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