Fables of the Reconstruction

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With patience reminiscent of Tolstoy, Cornelia Nixon weaves a tapestry of events to explain how an ordinary girl in post-Civil War Maryland kills her lover and gets away with it.

Nearly all writers of historical fiction find inspiration for their work in family stories. “Based on a true story from the author’s family history,” proclaims the back cover of Jarrettsville, Cornelia Nixon’s third novel. As if to establish this fact beyond a reasonable doubt, the book’s flyleaves contain annotated maps of northeastern Maryland and an honest-to-god family tree. “Death dates and married names,” reads a footnote, “are included only for deaths and marriages that occurred before the start of this story.” Good to know. But isn’t this supposed to be historical fiction?

It is, and Nixon’s acknowledgements remind us of it: “This novel is a work of fiction. It was inspired by true events, but it remains imaginary, and some characters and scenes are invented.” What does an author gain by exposing her sources—or, in the case of Jarrettsville, publishing them? My suspicion is that readers give authors bonus points for hewing close to fact—just as readers of memoir demand that the writer’s recollections be 100% true. Fact, in this case, is an enhancement. Think of it as a popper on paper.

The truth is that Cornelia Nixon needs no gimmicks. Like all great novelists (historical or otherwise), she deals primarily in character, not circumstance—though the historical moment could not have been more perfectly suited to the story. Jarrettsville takes place in a small Maryland community over the four years immediately following the Civil War. Tensions are still high in this part of the country, because families were torn apart by opposing sympathies during the war, as they were in many border communities. Because of the dramatic possibilities inherent in this setup, I am tempted to say that northern Maryland was an inspired choice of setting—but of course we are told that the setting chose the author and not the other way around. Turns out the “based on family history” thing cuts both ways.

Jarrettsville is, at its core, a story of forbidden love. The female protagonist, Martha Jane Cairnes, is a plain girl from a Confederate-leaning family who, at twenty four, is beginning to see spinsterhood as a real possibility. Her opposite is Nick McComas, son of an infamous abolitionist, and a childhood sweetheart of Martha’s. Nick is now a Union cavalry officer, which makes him persona non grata in the Cairnes household. The tension between Nick McComas and Martha’s misanthropic brother, Richard, is so strong, in fact, that when the two men appear in scenes together they are like pit bulls on chains, each slavering to rip the other’s heart from his chest.

It is interesting, then, that the Cairnes who finally kills Nick McComas is not Richard but Martha. (I am not giving anything away with this revelation—it is the scene which begins the book and from which all else follows.) The narrative tension comes not from the who but the why of Nick’s murder. With patience reminiscent of Tolstoy, Nixon weaves together a tapestry of events and psychology to explain how an ordinary girl comes to kill her lover, and how she is acquitted by a jury of her peers. (Again, no spoiler—the outcome of Martha’s trial is revealed in the flap copy.)

But never mind the plot; you might read Jarrettsville just for the prose. Nixon, who lives in the Bay Area, renders a Maryland that is as still and luminous as Styron’s Virginia in The Confessions of Nat Turner. Several times each chapter I reached for my pencil to underline an observation that could not possibly have come from a California author. Nixon describes “cicadas droning like the sound of sleep.” A tomato vine Martha trips over “gave off sweet and spicy scents.” Her descriptions of people are just as precise: Our first glimpse of Nick McComas has him “alert in stillness like a deer pausing to stare at you, hoping to be invisible, but still drawn to you.” And we can all see someone we know in Martha’s assessment of her brother: “All he seemed to care about was making money and keeping a good reputation in the world, and he was more than ever like that, now that he had a family.”

It is these memorable characters that finally separate Jarrettsville from the ordinary Civil War novel—and from the ranks of family-history “novelizations.” In rock music there is something called the Acoustic Guitar Rule: If a song can’t hold its own when played on an acoustic guitar, it will never be a hit, no matter how much you tinker with the mix. The same goes for historical novels: The story must hold up without its historical milieu, without maps or family trees.

Do Nixon’s characters carry the tune? My answer is an emphatic yes. Put Jarrettsville in heavy rotation.

Nick Taylor is the author of the novel The Disagreement, now available in paperback. He teaches creative writing at San Jose State University. More from this author →