Taking a slice of history from the Revolutionary War, this novel reeks of cunning, brutality, unpredictability, desperation and the willful accommodation of greed. A family of three scatters toward different fates as a result of a young man’s impulsive act. When James, the seventeen-year-old son of Salt and Molly, fires his pistol, the errant bullet kills a British soldier, snuffing out the family’s fortune along with the hapless man’s life.
Salt is removed from the farm, claiming the guilt that belonged to his son, and later transferred to the hold of a floating prison in New York Harbor, where the ports and city are controlled by the redcoats. There he remains in captivity, along with an assorted band of revolutionaries and petty criminals. Salt clings to life in this foreign environment with a resourcefulness born of desperation, temporarily disguised as Captain Stephen Marbury. Life as he knew it is forever changed, hearth and home a thing of the past: “Molly saw to it that desires Salt didn’t even know he had were met.”
It is Molly’s father, Ebenezer, who has sold out his son-in-law, deferring to the English in hopes of surviving the War with his wealth intact, the farm left in trust to his grandson. Meanwhile, James is trained as a soldier of the Crown, growing restive around his mother, avoiding her as much as possible as adolescence turns to manhood.
Molly holds the rowdy troops at bay with the aid of Major General Michael Drayton, who assumes husbandly duties as well. Grown independent in service of her person and her goods, Molly makes whatever choices are in the best interests of her family. No one believes Salt will return to claim his wife, the men positioning themselves should Molly seek male protection.
Salt has his own problems surviving the appalling conditions in the ship’s hold as men expire daily from starvation and the spread of the pox - hence the title, “Rebels, turn out your dead.” A man who was daily comforted by his pipe of hemp, Salt’s situation is precarious, each day on the filthy ship an ordeal that taxes his gentle nature.
The descriptions of war are harrowing: the land stripped of fowl, cattle and crops, laid to waste by marauding troops on both sides; captive men in leg irons chained in filthy confines, preyed upon by disease and vermin; the spoils claimed by those in power and clever thieves who manipulate the war-market for personal gain.
In this vibrant historical landscape, atrocities, betrayals and heartbreak loom large. Molly and Salt cling to survival in a changed world, their home occupied by the enemy, their dreams insupportable if not outright folly. Everywhere profiteers bargain and cajole for small comforts, the careless waste of humanity a by-product of every endeavor. At the mercy of others, the family strives to overcome their perils, invested in at least the promise of a future.