cover image Jacob's Ladder: A Story of Virginia During the War

Jacob's Ladder: A Story of Virginia During the War

Donald McCaig. W. W. Norton & Company, $25.95 (525pp) ISBN 978-0-393-04629-8

Imagine a collaboration between Shelby Foote and Margaret Mitchell and you get some idea of the historical irony and passion that inform this fine literary novel, which captures the full sweep of the Civil War in Virginia. In 1934, a WPA writer interviewing 90-year-old Marguerite Omohundru, former Richmond bank president, uncovers the dark secrets of a prominent Virginia family. In 1857, 14-year-old Duncan Gatewood is disowned and sent off to VMI when his father, Samuel, discovers he has fallen in love with and impregnated Midge, a 13-year-old light-skinned slave. To prevent scandal, the girl and infant son, Jacob, are sold south by slave dealer Silas Omohundru, who eventually reclaims Midge from a Vicksburg brothel and marries her. But Midge (or Maggie) already has a black husband. When he runs away to look for her, the daughter of a neighboring white planter and her husband are sent to prison for giving him shelter. War breaks out, and these many oddly linked characters are flung apart and cross paths with various actual figures of the day. (This is the third book this season in which John Brown is a character: the others are Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter and Jane Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.) From the blockade-running at Wilmington and Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, they make their separate ways through the carnage. McCaig's (The Butte Polka) portrayal of this moment succeeds not only as a splendid piece of writing but also as a searching indictment of inhumanities that still haunt the American soul. BOMC, QPB and History Book Club selections. (Apr.) FYI: A Virginia sheep farmer as well as a novelist, McCaig occasionally writes on rural living for NPR.