My Kansas author for the month of November, in this the sequicentennial year of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which established Territorial Kansas and ushered in the "Bloody Kansas" period), is another author with a recently published novel set, in good part, in Kansas during the Civil War. I know Tom Mach less well than perhaps any of the 35 other Kansas authors I've featured on this web site, for he lived in California until his recent retirement, and, while now a fellow member of the Kansas Authors Club, he's a member in Lawrence, in District 2, while I'm a member in Topeka, in District 1, and I have only met him the last two years at KAC state conventions and at the Topeka Public Library book signing where I bought his book.
To summarize a short description of the book on his web site: Tom Mach’s debut novel Sissy! won the 2003 Kansas Authors Club J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award for the best book published by a member in the previous two years, and, unlike Civil War novels that focus on generals and battle strategies, Sissy! looks at that war through the eyes of slaves who want to fight for freedom and women who exhibited enormous courage in treating the wounded on the battlefield, and even, in some instances, disguising themselves as men to fight as soldiers. The novel opens in 1857 with an Underground Railroad rescue of a slave girl. War breaks out, and in 1862, a Lawrence, Kansas, woman, Jessica Radford, follows a path of vengeance when she finds her parents murdered and Nellie, an adopted former slave girl, missing and possibly killed as well. While three of the border ruffians who did this deed are hung, the leader, Sam Toby, escapes. Obsessed with abolishing slavery and seeking revenge for these murders, Jessica, disguised as a male soldier on a Tennessee battleground, is about to kill the wrong man. But she is challenged when she confronts Sissy, Nellie’s guardian angel. While Sissy! ends with Quantrill's raid of Lawrence, it includes battle scenes in Perryville, Hoover’s Gap, Stones River, and Island Mound—the site where the first black slaves died in the Civil War while serving under the flag of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, started by James Lane.
The introduction of the young slave-girl ghost, Sissy--who may give the reader trouble in an otherwise realistic narrative, but has an important thematic function--and making the central character a female Civil War soldier, definitely makes this an unusual Civil War novel. And, in handling plot, Mach keeps several stories going at once, moving from one to another, usually for a couple of pages at a time (usually identified chronologically by time and place), which does sometimes get a little confusing, but he often holds reader interest by use of the sometimes effective technique of ending a segment with a dramatic moment provoking curiosity about what happens next in that story line. When the curiosity is satisfied in a few pages, that usually works pretty well, but in a few cases it reminded me of the technique from the Saturday movie serials of my boyhood, which would break away with a cliff hanger which was much less dramatic opening the next week's segment. An extreme (but not the only) example is when a young black woman, Nellie, climbs into bed with a sleeping Roger Toby, the "good twin brother" of Sam, the villain she thinks it is, just before Roger's wife, Sara, comes into the room, is shocked, and leaves, "slamming the door behind her"--end of Chapter 6. The next chapter opens with another story in another place, and we only get back to this one after two intervening chapters, almost 30 pages, with pieces from half a dozen other stories, in half a dozen other places in between, to then learn that Roger has simply told Sara the truth and she believes him--so completely that she leaves him alone in the house with Nellie, asking him to provide the girl with a towel as she comes naked from the bath. This may help to characterize the little known Roger as an exceptionally virtuous man before his big mistaken identity scene with Jessica, but the motivation of all three women involved (including Sissy) strains credibility. Generally speaking, however, Mach is true enough to history (in fictionalizing the Quantrill raid in the last 50 pages, for example) to hold a reader's attention, and provoke us to think about these things again--and for me to recommend the novel.
For additional information on the author and his novel, including ordering information, see www.sissynovel.com, or write to:Hill Song Press
P. O. Box 486
Lawrence, KS 66044