Nowhere Else on Earth
by Josephine Humphreys
Viking, 341 pp, $24.95
The ability to impart a deep mystical quality to a period in U.S. history so savagely brutal as the War Between the States only scratches the surface of Josephine Humphreys' talent. The threads of the story she tells are loose and wandering in the beginning but become intricately woven to reveal the lives of a large family in North Carolina in the aftermath of the Civil War in 1870.
The family encompasses Indians, former slaves, freemen, Scots descendents and perhaps, wonder of wonders, the lost colony of Sir Walter Raleigh. How they survive starvation and the killing on all sides boggles one's mind.
The daily living conditions paint a shocking canvas of how people can survive terrible conditions, willing themselves to live through it all. Normal feelings seem blunted; loving and caring are unaffordable luxuries. For want of a horse, a mule or even an ox, a man hitches his mentally retarded brother to the plough to cultivate his cornfield. Life seems to be almost worthless in the wake of that tragic war, the fields laid waste and no food to be found.
All is not dark and grim, however. Rhoda, the dominant character, is a star even as a teenager, when we first meet her. Her mother cannot even read, but she could sure teach a college course in philosophy; she never speaks without saying something you note and hope to remember. Seeing her deal with a string of disasters, accept them and go on is one of the highlights of the book.
Rhoda's mother-in-law teaches her how to bone a whole chicken, removing every bone before cooking can you believe it? Her husband stands and calls to his bees, who come and cover him completely with not one sting.
There's a hanging: Rag-tag soldiers from the armies of both North and South are passing through the countryside, pillaging and raiding as they go. It's a lawless time. Everyone is afraid, day and night, not knowing who will come or what weapons they will have and use to get what they want. Doors stay locked and bolted while bands of outlaws hang out in the woods between forays.
The brilliance of the people's spirit brightens this dark period. The war that pitted brother against brother was a blot on the country for the five years it lasted, but the slaves were freed and a sound union was re-established a great nation begun again, stronger than ever.
You will be enchanted by the lyricism of the prose, the word pictures of the swamps, forests, and meadows of rural North Carolina as peace gently returns in 1871. The reader feels a sense of wonder that human beings can forge ahead, loving and hoping, in the face of such extreme brutality. It's a feeling that remains long after the last page is turned.
"Nowhere Else on Earth" is available at Dockside Bookshop in Havensight Mall on St. Thomas. To check out other Dockside favorites, click here.
POST-CIVIL WAR NOVEL IS A STORY OF SPIRIT
Nowhere Else on Earth
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