The author: Madison Smartt Bell is the author of 13 previous works of fiction, including Anything Goes and the trilogy of novels about Haiti's long, bloody struggle for independence led by Toussaint Louverture, including All Souls' Rising. A creative writing professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, Bell also is a musician, part of the recording duo Bell & Cooper, which released its second album, Postcards Out of the Blue, last year.
The plot: In this historical novel about Nathan Bedford Forrest, the most reviled and celebrated, loathed and legendary of Civil War generals, Bell follows Forrest on and off the battlefield. The novel shuttles between 1845 and 1865 and explores his rise to the top of the ranks despite his abhorrence of Army bureaucracy -- and his being a target of General Sherman -- as well as his complicated personal life. Forrest, who is addicted to gambling and becomes a slave trader, marries Mary Ann Montgomery, but has a black mistress, with whom he fathers several children.
Opening lines: "He passed the night in a canebrake a little way south of the Ohio River, still in earshot of the river's sluggish flow. Amid the cane he found a raised flat shelf of limestone, harder than sleeping on the ground would have been, but apt to give him some relief from ticks and chiggers or so he hoped. Before he lay down he splashed a little water on the four directions at the edges of the oblong stone -- not too much water, for there was a moon, and he didn't want to leave the cover of the cane to fill his canteen from the water's edge."
Review: Publishers Weekly wrote: "The unconventional structure and supernatural twist expand the narrative into an engaging examination of what it means to be free, a question that haunts Forrest through his life." By Katherine Federici Greenwood