Robert Grede’s first novel has all the makings of a rollicking good story. Based on the life of Sergeant George Van Norman, Grede’s great-great-grandfather, The Spur & The Sash seamlessly combines fiction and fact. The facts, Grede tells us, are these: “Sergeant George Van Norman, a Yankee, was wounded in one of the last battles of the American Civil War, at Nashville(December 15th and 16th, 1864). Left behind to recover when the armies marched on, he was ordered to guard a local plantation from January to July, 1865, where he fell in love with the owner’s daughter.”
George arrives at Elm Grove, the plantation, unsettled and awkward around Southern mannerisms. When the house servant asks him, “Whom may I say is calling?” George cannot believe the formality (bordering on the ridiculous, to him) of the question. He keeps replaying the scene in his head – “Whom! Whom!” – with great wonder and amusement. Luckily, George gradually falls into the good graces of the plantation owner, a fair-minded and intelligent Judge Wilson, over talk of good soil and drinking of good whiskies.
From then on, George begins to build a new life. He falls in love with Eva, Judge Wilson’s daughter, and she with him. This alone is an immeasurable comfort, but he also befriends the Judge’s son, the main servant, Eb, and even reconnects by chance with a former Confederate soldier, Noah Turner, whom George had once released as a prisoner. Also populating the story is a villainous character named Slive, who kills, steals, and double-crosses as easily as breathing. Is it really a coincidence that his name is an anagram of “evils”? I’d guess not. Slive is responsible for truly horrific deeds, but there is also a fantastic scene in the book where he decides the best method of scaring off “squatters” is to create a monster called “Swamp Wampus” – which involves Slive running around in a sheet, his dirty work boots showing underneath, yelling “Behold the holy specter of doom!”
But not everything in the story is gunfire, horse thieves, and wandering through dark swamps. The story hinges on two main emotions: love and displacement. The first of these, of course, revolves around Eva. Eva is part Scarlett O’Hara, part Emily Dickinson. Wasp-waisted and clad in “spruce-blue velvet,” Eva spends her introductory chapters literally hidden in the attic of her father’s house, safe from unsavory soldiers and carpetbaggers. To pass the time and seek some outlet for her unsettled thoughts, Eva writes letters to her dead mother. The letters are so intimate in their honesty and admittance of fear and doubt that reading them makes you feel slightly guilty, as if you had happened upon a church and overheard someone else’s confession.
What George and Eva both see in the other is virtue, something that seems to be distinctly lacking in their world of carpetbaggers, wounded men, and utter social and political chaos. George muses, “Her beauty had not blinded him to her shortcomings, but perhaps it had to her virtues.” When their first love scene finally occurs, it is as dramatic as could be expected – “the sky opened, and the angels sighed.”
Despite the romance anchoring him to Elm Grove, George naturally struggles with the feelings of a stranger in a strange land. Ironically, he finds his answer in Judge Wilson’s words, who tells him: “Beauty is as you find it, Sergeant, a matter of philosophy and geography.” When George returns again and again to the question of “Home? What is home?”, he tells himself that perhaps, after all, it is truly “a matter of philosophy and geography.” George finds his philosophy through Eva, through Noah, through the Judge, through his own memories of his home in Wisconsin and his memories of the war. He finds his geography through breathing life back into the once grand Elm Grove, through crumbling the rich soil between his fingers and seeing the wall around the plantation grow “by rock and yard.” With this newfound sense of place, both emotional and tangible, George is able to find peace.
Grede is fond of patterns: the scenes that open on a train are sure to use the phrase “kick-kack, kick-kack” to describe the sounds of the journey. George sees the familiar soldier’s pattern of “Load-hand-tear-charge-draw-ram-return-prime-hup!” mirrored in the bending and straightening rhythm of the farmhands planting seeds. The shifting pattern of Eva’s letter-writing shows the changes in Eva herself, as she leaves behind her insular existence to join George in an unfamiliar world. The first few times we see Eva writing to her mother, she “folded the letter carefully to put away in her drawer with the others.” After she first mentions George in a letter, “she gently dabbed her quill in her ink rag and set aside her writing kit.” Further along, she hurriedly shoves a letter into the desk, “its deepening stack of letters rustling softly as she slammed the drawer.” And lastly, after Eva writes a love letter to George, she takes the stack of letters to her mother and burns them in the yard. This seems less of a violent gesture than a gentle laying-to-rest of a solace that Eva no longer needs.
Like the kick-kack of the trains, Grede’s prose rolls richly along throughout the book, carrying the story to its somewhat bewildering end. The Spur & The Sash is an utterly satisfying read, though the factual story of George and Eva ends in a less-than-satisfactory manner. Truly a masterful effort for a first novel, Grede shows complete command over his subject and his craft. Steeped in philosophy and geography, The Spur & The Sash is a memorable contribution to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.