Guerrilla Season by Pat Hughes
reviewed by Deb Houdek Rule for Civil War St. Louis
Season of light, season of darkness… this was 1863 in Clay County in northern Missouri. Boys hunted, swam, and played with their friends. They also planted crops and tended to their chores. It was all normal, pastoral, even, except at this time and in this place, nothing was normal. Everywhere and all the time lurked the omnipresent aura of danger behind the placid green of the woods and bushes.
The bushwhackers, guerrilla fighters for the Confederacy, hid in the woods, striking out at the occupying Federal forces. They were a deadly danger to any taking the Union side. To those taking the Southern side, the perils were as great, from the Federal soldiers and the Provost Marshal enforcing military law, often based on whim and spite. The only thing worse that being on the side of the Rebels or the Union was to be neutral.
In this tense setting author Pat Hughes tells the story of Matt Howard and his friend Jesse–yes, that’s future outlaw Jesse James–as teenaged boys dealing with the conflict of civil war in their own back yards, and their own friendship in the face of conflicting loyalties. Matt Howard is a wholly fictional character, a boy of fifteen trying to support his family after the death of his father. He struggles to keep neutrality between north and south at the behest of his northerner mother, yet his own leanings keep pulling him toward the rebels. His closest friend, Jesse, clearly favors the guerrillas–his brother, Frank “Buck” James, being one of the bushwhackers–and both boys realize it’s only a matter of time before Jesse, too, goes to the bush.
Author Pat Hughes creates a solid, believable character of teenaged Jesse James. In the character she brought to life, drawn from research into the scanty contemporary information available, one can see the traits that could lead the boy into becoming a outlaw and killer. Piously quoting the Bible one minute, Hughes then deftly lets us see the glint of the dangerous person Jesse would become. There might be historical room to quibble about the timeline and sequence of events (an issue addressed by Hughes in historical notes at the end), but the way Hughes portrays these critical events in young Jesse’s life at this time is so immensely logical and lends itself so well to the story’s and character’s development that any need for dispute I had was easily pushed aside. The setting and scenarios of 1863 Civil War Missouri appear very well researched and are believably and adeptly portrayed.
Fictional Matt was also a fully realized character who comes to embody the stresses at work on anyone in north-western Missouri during the Civil War. His struggle for neutrality is thwarted by everyone around him. His friend Jesse pulls him toward the Rebels, while Matt’s mother refuses to believe in his neutrality and in her efforts to keep him leaning toward the Union continually thrusts the label of Rebel upon him. The Federal authorities and their treatment of suspected southern-sympathizers do the most to push Matt toward the bushwhackers. So conflicted was Matt, and so well done was the portrayal of his choice between Union and Confederate that the author kept me wondering until the end which way he would go–and satisfied me with the ultimate outcome of his choice.
In the setting comes one of the most powerful elements of the novel. Author Pat Hughes created a setting in which the reader can become one with the surroundings, feeling the summer heat, hearing the leaves rustle in the trees, and smelling the rich earth. Yet the woods–the bush–that surrounds them becomes a character in itself. At times bright and welcoming, the bush contains always the hint of danger, becoming a darker more threatening thing as the story progresses. The forest becomes the representation of the conflict–always surrounding the people, unavoidable, inescapable, and filled with lethal unknowns.
The other characters serve the story well, with intriguing glimpses of Jesse’s mother, sister, and step-father. Matt’s mother and crippled older brother felt real and well thought-out.
The first few chapters start off a bit unevenly, with quite a bit of expository information as the author brings the readers up to speed on the situation. The point of view drifts a bit at this point, as well, but soon settles down into clear, enjoyable writing that drew me deeper into the story with each page.
Congratulations to Pat Hughes for a fine first novel in “Guerrilla Season.” It is a pleasure to recommend and I hope more by this author will follow.