An obscure but fascinating aspect of the Civil War, when hundreds of women disguised as men enlisted in the army as Union soldiers to fight, is at the heart of Neverhome (Little, Brown; Sept.) by Laird Hunt, the author of five novels and a collection of short stories and a two-time finalist for the PEN Center USA fiction award.
At the heart of the story is a rebellious young woman named Ash Thompson, who leaves her beloved husband during the Civil War to join the Union Army Hunt’s inspiration for Neverhome was sparked when his wife gave him a copy of An Uncommon Soldier, a collection of letters written by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, one of the actual women who enlisted during the Civil War. Deeply moved by the story, Hunt first wrote a short story about two of these unique women. “The time period is familiar terrain for me,” Hunt says. “I’m fascinated by the mid to late portion of the 19th century.”
“It took me a while to unlock the story [of Ash], to finally hear her voice in my head,” Hunt says from Boulder, Colo., where he lives with his wife and daughter. “Once that happened, it only took about five weeks to find the shape of Neverhome.” It is a fine achievement, one in which Hunt clearly establishes a female perspective and voice, but also brings authenticity to Ash’s disguise as a young man in battle as she convinces her comrades of her masculinity. The reader roots for Ash throughout this compelling tale.
Neverhome represents a major leap for Hunt in the publishing strata, as it is the first of his books to be signed with a major trade house. Coffee House Press published most of Hunt’s work. “I love Coffee House, and they gave me their blessing when I told them about my Little, Brown deal,” Hunt says. “My writing career has had an incremental build over the years, and this move fills me with a different sense of possibility.”
Ash is never described physically in the book, but Hunt’s image of her helped him write the character. “She’s someone who’s compact, sort of androgynous, who embodies a middle ground,” he says. “I hope that readers of Neverhome come away with both the sense of having gone on an extraordinary journey into the intense crucible that helped shape this country, and the fierce cadences of Ash Thompson, who took them there, ringing in their ears.”
Hunt signs today at 11 a.m. in the Corral area.