Eleven Southern states seceded from the Union in 1860-61, but there’s a little-known story about the hamlet of Town Line, New York state, close to Niagara Falls, also voting to secede. No-one outside really recognised the vote, but Town Line didn’t vote to rejoin the Union until 1946! It’s not clear exactly what went on, but many of the locals were German-Americans who’d left Bavaria and other German states during the 1848 Revolutions, and the author’s view, which is as likely as any, is that they’d fled partly to avoid conscription and didn’t want to be conscripted to fight for a Union with which they didn’t really identify. Conscription didn’t actually exist in 1861, but, still, it’s as likely an explanation as any.
Town Line lies very close to the Canadian border, and, in this book, some of the inhabitants are part of the Underground Railroad, whilst others are bounty hunters who try to capture slaves trying to reach freedom in Canada, and return them to owners offering rewards for their capture. We also hear their fears of competition for jobs if slaves are freed and head north. A young male slave has fled Virginia and made it to Town Line, but been attacked by a vicious dog belonging to the bounty hunters and lost a leg as a result. Our heroine Mary is trying to help him to get over the border.
It’s an interesting setting for a Civil War novel. They tend to focus on either plantation owners in the Deep South or pro-war characters in the North, and ignore the spectrum of views which existed on both sides of the Union-Confederate border. The blurb for the book refers to the “Mason-Dixon Line”, but even that’s not accurate because not all the Southern states seceded. Washington DC was a Southern city, for a kick-off. And West Virginia, from where the slave in question had escaped, seceded from Virginia and was admitted to the Union as a separate state. It was complicated.
This is the author’s first novel, and that shows. The subject matter’s interesting, but the characters are a little one-dimensional, all either goodies or baddies with not much in between. And the escapee’s former owners live in West Virginia, but the book doesn’t really explain how West Virginia seceded from Virginia, etc – although it does make the point that slaves in Union slave states weren’t covered by the Emancipation Proclamation.
Some of the language and attitudes may offend, but none of it’s inappropriate in context. It would be ridiculous to write a book in which characters in the 1860s spoke about racial issues in the language of the 2020s, and I wish people would accept that. This isn’t a great book and never really gripped me, but it was very positive to see a book which showed a range of views being held by different characters. Due to the “culture wars” present plaguing the US and beyond, a narrative’s been created by which the American Civil War was all about the North opposing slavery and the South supporting slavery, which just wasn’t the case. There were complex issues involved, and views across a broad spectrum were held, in both Union states and Confederate states. Thanks to Daren Wang for showing that.