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Book Review : Feminist Reconstruction From the Roots of War

April 28, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

High Hearts by Rita Mae Brown (Bantam: $17.95)

"High Hearts" is a truly wacko novel set between an interesting foreword and a satisfactory epilogue. What occurs between the two is that Rita Mae Brown, very militant feminist and celebrity, has looked to her Southern roots and written a Civil War novel--in part in homage to her great-grandfather. "High Hearts," as I take it, is meant to be solidly based in fact: "The characters in this book belong to the 1st Virginia Cavalry, and their actions often parallel those of the troops belonging to Col. Fitz Lee."

But this is also meant to be a novel of feminist theory. The central character here, Geneva Chatfield, a 6-foot, unpretty 18-year-old, marries Nash Hart a few days before the outbreak of the Civil War. Geneva, because of love, elects to masquerade as a man and follow her husband to battle. "Today," Brown reminds us, "a woman is denied the right to combat under the guise of 'protecting' her. Margaret Mitchell, before she wrote 'Gone With the Wind,' researched this phenomenon among Georgia women." Also, Brown adds, "there isn't space to list the Confederate women" who chose to fight.

Too Many Targets

Now, most of this material about women who "chose to fight" is in the foreword. Flipping toward the back, after the epilogue, the reader finds a list of the men in the county of Albemarle who died in that war: If there's space to list them, why not list those fighting women? The logical answer would appear to be that Brown is trying to do too many things here: She's paying an ancestral debt, while making a feminist point, and somewhere in the middle is this extraordinarily peculiar narrative.

And the real slaughter here has to do with the language. Brown murders it.

First, the story. After Geneva marries Hart, he goes off to the cavalry. Geneva follows him. But not until we've met her dizzy mother, Lutie, who talks to an imaginary friend, Emil, because her husband, Henley, has betrayed her with a slave, the issue of which is the beauteous Di-Peachy. When the lovers get out to the cavalry, Geneva (by now Jimmy) and Nash are under the command of Col. Mars Vickers--but they speak to their commanding officer in a way that is far from 19th Century and far from military.

Courted on the Sneak

Col. Vickers is married to the beautiful Kate Vickers, who is courted on the sneak by Henley, but that doesn't prevent Kate and Lutie from becoming best friends. Well, why not? An author gets to be in charge of his or her book. And if Brown wants to introduce characters like T. Pritchard Chalfonte and then never mention them again, why not?

But thematically, this book is cracked. By the end, beyond her epilogue, when Brown records her list of dead Confederate soldiers, she writes: "I do not believe you can read this list without being moved by it. . . . What I pray is that neither you, nor I, wherever we live, will have to read a list like this in the future."

A Southern Mother Courage

That makes sense, but within the novel Geneva/Jimmy is brave and loves battle; Col. Vickers loves to fight; Nash Hart, who hates it, is called Piggy, and Lutie, because of drenching herself in blood for long hours caring for the wounded, turns from a delusional dingbat into a Southern Mother Courage. Why, if war is supposed to be so bad for you, does Brown depict it as being so good for you? Because she feels like it.

Truthfully, none of this would matter if Brown could make you believe it. But . . . after Geneva watches her husband and brother trot off to war, "she went back into the house and cried until she thought she'd throw up." And later, "Di-Peachy sat at the foot of the davenport and massaged Geneva's cold feet while Lutie managed to get her boots off." (How do they do that?)

Where was the editor here? I can't figure it out! It gave me the creeps! I almost went off my nut! I almost got named for my favorite carbohydrate! I could have disappeared, like T. Pritchard Chalfonte. But I read this book from cover to cover and lived. There's more than one kind of heroism.

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