An extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband, inspired by the letters of a remarkable female soldier who fought in the Civil War.
Rosetta doesn't want her new husband Jeremiah to enlist, but he joins up, hoping to make enough money that they'll be able to afford their own farm someday. Though she's always worked by her father's side as the son he never had, now that Rosetta is a wife she's told her place is inside with the other women. But Rosetta decides her true place is with Jeremiah, no matter what that means, and to be with him she cuts off her hair, hems an old pair of his pants, and signs up as a Union soldier.
With the army desperate for recruits, Rosetta has no trouble volunteering, although she faces an incredubous husband. She drills with the men, proves she can be as good a soldier as anyone, and deals with the tension as her husband comes to grips with having a fighting wife. Rosetta's strong will clashes with Jeremiah's while their marraige is tested by broken conventions, constant danger, and war, and she fears discovery of her secret even as they fight for their future, and for their lives. Inspired by more than 250 documented accounts of the women who fought in the Civil War while disguised as men, "I Shall Be Near To You" is the intimate story, in Rosetta's powerful and gorgeous voice, of the drama of marriage, one woman's amazing exploits, and the tender love story that can unfold when two partners face life's challenges side by side."
It pleases me to no end to have my first novel of 2015 be a 5 star read. It is an emotionally moving and somber depiction of the American Civil War (not that anything about the Civil War would be happy of course). It is a historical fiction that intertwines a romance struggling to survive, during a time where there were no guarantees of fortune and glory once the war ended. Each side, both thinking the war would be an easy win, was in reality, a war that held the highest mortality rate for American deaths in all the wars we have endured. The story is told in the first person, with the unabashed speech and mannerism of a young woman raised and working on a farm, growing up with friends that were mostly boys. She is able to read and write, but her life mostly consists of assisting her father on their land. During the story there are flashbacks of Rosetta’s life. She is fiercely independent, and so stubborn that the man she loves, Jeremiah, calls her his “Stone Lady”.
The book begins with a hasty marriage of Rosetta and Jeremiah. They care for each other deeply and have dreams of owning their own farm one day with the money Jeremiah will obtain once he is discharged. Rosetta does not want him to go, and the reader cannot help but feel the desperation in her voice when she asks him to stay, over and over. Jeremiah understands her concerns as men in their own town have not returned from war, leaving young women without a husband and young babies without a father. So after a short time together as man and wife, Jeremiah sneaks off to war without telling Rosetta goodbye, leaving only a letter to his new bride.
Rosetta is quite angry, but for the most part heartbroken. Her life without her husband only becomes worse when her mother-in-law dictates what she is allowed to do. Having grown up as mostly helping her father as a farmhand, she has little interests in mending shirts and other womanly chores. She grew up with boys that were her friends, and the outdoors as her place of solace. Rosetta can not stand to be confined. Out of fear for Jeremiah and out of complete loneliness, she cuts her hair, dresses in male clothing and embarks on her journey to be at her husband’s side. There are also other reasons that she leaves but I shall not mention that here.
Because it is a war, there will of course be violent scenes. The book will not always take you where you are wanting it to go. But the lack of predictability is always a sign of a good book. So the reader should know this going in.
This is truly a powerful adaptation of what these soldiers had to bear, and what an important role females played in this historic war. From having read the Author’s Note, Rosetta was an actual person, though not in the 97th New York Volunteers. Her real name being Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. There were others, one of whom served while she was pregnant. (Mind boggling!)
A “conservative” estimate of women that served during the American Civil War were between 400-750. It saddens me that with these numbers, we know next to nothing about their courageous acts and the life they led as a soldier or spy. Should they not hold a page or two in our children’s history books?
All these facts aside, I Shall Be Near To You is a book not to be missed by the historical fiction and historical romance fiction aficionados. It is not always an easy read, but if you continue forward you will come to appreciate this book. It is an inspiring piece of work that you will continue to reference and respect. You will admire the steadfast love of Rosetta and Jeremiah, their deep commitment to each other and to their cause. And if you are a woman, you will leave this book with a deep admiration for all the women that fought in the American Civil War.
Lastly, I do admit to my initial interest on this book based on the protagonist’s name. You don’t see it often. Trust me, I know.