In her latest novel, Paulette Jiles spins a wonderful story about hope undimmed by war and goodness emerging from despair. Set in the American South during the waning days of the Civil War, the book features Simon, an itinerant fiddle player, as he plans his future despite the destruction that surrounds him.
As he wanders through Kentucky playing his music, Simon has evaded conscription. But a bar fight and subsequent arrest change all that. When finally drafted into the Confederate army, he lands a plum assignment as a member of a military band – the first of many times that his music rescues him from his surroundings.
Though Simon now passes his days in a tattered military uniform, he continues to imagine his future, one free of the constraints of war. His ambitions include owning land where he can settle down with a good wife and he somehow knows that music, and his prized Markneukirchen fiddle, will help get him there.
When word reaches their regiment that the Confederacy has surrendered, the scrappy military band leads their troops as they march toward the Union forces to surrender. But once again, music lifts Simon above his circumstances. With a celebratory dinner planned for that evening, he is plucked from among the soldiers to perform as part of a band that includes musicians from both the Union and Confederate army bands.
It is at this dinner that he spots Doris, a dark-eyed beauty, an Irish indentured servant retained to care for the daughter of a Union colonel. Simon is spellbound, but his meeting with Doris is brief as the Colonel and his family are on their way to San Antonio, Texas as part of the occupying forces of Reconstruction.
Surrounded by chaos as the troops shift to a post-war agenda, Simon quietly slips away and resumes his musical career, such as it is. But this time, he travels with a few of the musicians picked up from among those who performed at the officers’ dinner. Together they form a rag-tag traveling band, playing wherever someone will pay them. But even as he steps up to lead the band, Simon never stops thinking about Doris and planning how he might renew their acquaintance.
As the story unfolds, the novel provides an exquisite example of how storytelling can rise to the level of art. As Jiles depicts the daily lives of people across a swath of the South during the mid-19th century, her writing brings alive a chapter of history known mostly for political retribution. She shares her character’s experiences as they struggle to rebuild after years of war.
It is in the details that Jiles captures their desperation – scavenging at the local hospital for wearable clothing, hoping to find discarded garments without bullet holes; the lone water pump on Galveston’s main dock that serves as the sole source of potable water for most of the city’s inhabitants; the punishing retribution of the Northern forces that flaunt their affluence in the midst of the destruction, aware that the Confederate war bonds that so many of the local citizens held are now worthless.
Yet, despite all this, the narrative is not bleak. The people do not surrender to despair and the destruction does not define them. The story reveals countless examples of honesty, faithfulness, and simple kindness. It illustrates resiliency, especially when Simon holds fast to his plans for his future and his hope that it will include Doris, not just as a hollow dream, but as an achievable goal. And when the civic institutions such as the court system falter and fail, we see innate goodness sustain the people involved. Joy shines through the destruction.
Music shines through, as well. It’s a consistent thread of saving grace woven throughout the tale. Expressed through his cherished fiddle, it is music that gives Simon the means to make his dreams a reality. It protects him during war, supports a sense of community, and eventually draws in the woman he loves.