I sang Sarah’s praise on numerous occasions and interviewed her as well. This book just won an award, too, and I can now confirm myself that it is no exception to the author’s string of excellent literary offerings.
“Genteel Secrets” by S.R. Mallery is a well-crafted novel with two very engaging main characters. Set in the Civil War, two somewhat likeminded people from very different backgrounds meet, agree on the matter of slavery and politics and end up spying together.
Much is given to their back story, making their chemistry all the more believable and giving us good grounds to identify with both of them.
The author uses subtle changes of perspective in the chapters, so we can see the characters also as they are perceived from the outside.
A lot of detailed research has gone into the chapters, which span the years from the Atlantic crossing of some characters to the US up to the Civil War. Historically, this is very engaging.
The book couldn’t have come at a more significant time, with racism and anti-immigration sentiments at new heights. Mallery’s novel reminded me of the parallels of our current situation with that of her setting.
An important and inspiring work, one of Mallery’s finest.
Here are some excerpts and details for the new book:
What do a well-bred Southern Belle and a Northern working class Pinkerton detective have in common? Espionage . . . and romance. At the start of the U.S. Civil War, while young men begin dying on American battlefields and slavery is headed toward its end, behind the scenes, female undercover work and Pinkerton intelligence are alive and well. But in the end, can this unlikely Romeo and Juliet couple’s love survive, or will they be just another casualty of war?
“The best portion of a good man’s life: his little
nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love
James had had enough. His final medical exams finished, he was traveling home to New York soon, and the mere thought of drinking himself senseless with his graduating cronies seemed pointless somehow. Especially with all that was happening around the country in early 1861. In just Washington D. C. alone, he could see how much the city had changed since his arrival at the medical college the year before. And with the tall, lanky Lincoln newly elected, a tension was growing between his many Republican supporters and the few diehards who were quietly holding on to their southern sympathies.
Exhausted, James decided not to think of such matters this afternoon. With two pieces of leftover bread lodged in his pocket, he hurried along the streets to his favorite park bench. He chose to ignore the busy shopkeepers, the abolitionists handing out more potent leaflets, and the intermittent hammerings of the White House’s reconstruction.
No books, no note taking, no worrying about his future, this excursion was going to be his very own moment of peace and relaxation. He plunked himself down on a bench. Eyes closed, his face tilted up toward the sun beaming down its layer of warmth as he relished the calm after so many months of concentration and tension.
Soon, he became aware of another’s presence nearby and frowned. How dare someone invade his privacy at this park on this day, in his hour of need? He opened his eyes to spy on this person, this interloper. What he saw was a lovely girl sitting on the bench directly across from him.Absorbed in a book, she was obviously in her own world of words.
He could feel his heartbeat changing pace. No longer steady and slow, it was erratic and gathering speed at an alarming rate. When she casually lifted up her face to look at him, the rapid throbbing in his chest was threatening to take over his breathing. Her outfit spoke of generations of good breeding and money, yet her intelligent eyes hinted at something deeper, more original than the girls to whom he had been exposed.
He was riveted.
“Maintaining slavery is like holding a wolf by the ear.
We can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”
–– Thomas Jefferson
“…By the age of eight, Hannah realized her older cousin Lavinia was the bane of her existence.
This hadn’t always been the case. Up until the age of three, Hannah remembered her slightly older relative as being tolerable enough. With her ash brown ringlets, blue eyes that pierced right through people, and a fine, alabaster skin a washed with rosewater soap, Lavinia would drift in and out of Hannah’s days with a faint smile of benign indifference.
That all changed when the older girl was tossed high up into the air by a rebellious pony. The doctor claimed she would recover completely and not to worry. Ruled by their own sense of decorum, the Mayfield family chose to see the pretty girl as nothing less than the very depiction of perfect health.
But her benign indifference to the world, so apparent before, shifted to blinding headaches and temper tantrums which threatened to disrupt the entire household. . .
. . .When Hannah turned seven, Lavinia displayed an even more disturbing behavior. Amidst platters of rich food and the household mistresses’ exchange of which gowns would garner the most attention, Lavinia suddenly turned to Hannah sitting next to her and dropped her fork.
“Now you do it,” she hissed.
Hannah shook her head vehemently.
Lavinia reached under the table, grabbed her cousin’s little pinkie finger and kept bending it backward until Hannah’s eyes glistened. Only then did Lavinia let go.
“My goodness, child.” Lavinia’s mother dabbed her mouth daintily with her damask napkin. “Whatever is wrong with you? You look as if you’re going to cry. You received your birthday presents this morning. Is that not enough?”
“Yes, you do look as though you’re about to have a cry, dear,” Hannah’s mother said as the two husbands down at the other end were embroiled in a discussion on how cotton profits were reaching epic proportions.
Hannah watched Lavinia slowly rotate around in her seat to face her.
“Oh, Hannah, are you all right?” she asked, her right hand trembling slightly, her face coated with mock concern.
The moment passed, the conversation resumed, and Hannah faced two grim realities: her mother and aunt could be counted on neither for protection nor love, and truly, there was a devil living under their roof.
“If you claim you heard it and weren’t scared,
that means you never heard it.”
––A soldier’s comment regarding the Rebel Yell
. . .Pushing toward the ridge, the Union leader McAdams and his troops could see Jackson’s line of defense mounting an attack. This is it. He ran and gathered the most bravura he could muster.
Then they all heard it. Its sound sliced through them like one of the bayonets they were holding. Half Indian whoop, half white man’s scream, it was unlike anything they had ever heard, and in an instant, it shattered their resolve into tiny pieces.
The shots rained down from the southern hold on the ridge in earnest now, flying every which way, dissecting Federalists’ hands, splitting apart legs, gouging out eyes, and mowing down men in a matter of seconds. No longer under cover of woods, the Union troops advanced more slowly, tempered by the onset of the southern batteries and the chilling effect of the Confederates’ unique Rebel yells.
McAdam and his troops had been told to oversee an orderly retreat, but when an officer galloped by, crying, “The enemy is upon us,” all the men around him dropped their guns and sprinted across the field, forgetting about their determination and their grit. They were too busy running for their lives.