The Civil War has been remembered and romanticized perhaps more than any other in American history, and some cynics might say, “Get over it.” But the trouble is that the war was too personal for many to "get over," and remnants of it still linger in the social consciousness of North and South.
That is one theme of this sweeping tale that takes the reader to the past to experience the war through the eyes of a host of characters including Malinda Blalock, a young woman who dressed as a man to follow her husband, Keith, into battle. They spent the bulk of the war in the mountains of North Carolina where they fought as Union guerrillas, raiding the farms of the Confederate sympathizers and avenging retaliatory raids on their neighbors and relatives.
Although Malinda willingly goes with her husband, she’d rather have no part of this war. Reflecting about the conflict she thinks,
“They [men] made it sound like a horse race or a wrestling match. Who was stronger, who was ahead, who was going to win. But I didn’t think anyone was going to win — not really.
Their story intersects with that of Zebulon Vance, a Confederate governor who fought for the welfare of the people of Appalachia within the hierarchy of the Confederacy. All three are real people who figured prominently in the war, and Sharyn McCrumb has fleshed out the historical accuracy of people thrust into a conflict they’d rather avoid.
“Being a woman, I thought of the war as a big old quilt, patterned with a stitch for every man killed, for every one wounded, for every farm burned, for every child orphaned… A quilt made of shrouds, stitched with a bone needle and dyed in blood… I just wished they’d hurry up and finish it, that’s all.”
The historical narrative links to the stories of two present-day mountain folk, Rattler and Nora Bonesteel, who have both seen the Ghost Riders. Rattler has befriended a group of re-enactors, but he hasn’t told them about the riders -- “Not because I was afeered they wouldn’t believe me. I was more a-scairt that they would. Bad enough that the war is not over for them that fought it without having these toy soldiers out there a-trying to hunt up the real ones.”
Like McCrumb’s other works -- The Songcatcher, She Walks These Hills, and The Ballad of Frankie Silver -- this one is rich in authentic history and setting. It has been said that no other writer captures the heart of Appalachia in quite the same way, and that may very well be true. The writing is vivid and compelling with details that take the reader to that time and place and introduces him or her to a vast array of authentic characters.
vast array of authentic characters.
In Ghost Riders, however, that vast array of characters could have been shortened by one or two. The narrative doesn’t always flow smoothly from one character viewpoint to the next, and it takes too long to connect the character of Tom Gentry, a modern-day man who went to the mountains to die, to the rest of the story. When the connection does come, it just isn’t strong enough to justify the amount of narrative dedicated to him. Rattler knows that the Ghost Riders would just as soon take someone with them when they go on, but it’s too long from the prologue where that is introduced to the end for the reader to remember and say, “Ah, that’s what this thread of Gentry is all about.”
Despite that flaw, the book stands strong with interesting characters, authentic dialogue, and engaging narrative.