The Spectre of Death Rode the Land: A Southern Family Caught Up in the Union Invasion of Missouri, 1861-1865 by Lois Glass Webb
reviewed by Deb Houdek Rule for Civil War St. Louis
“The war in Southeast Missouri was not one of glorious battles fought and chronicled for future reveling historians. Nevertheless, brave men skirmished daily for their very existence, died for their cause and were just as dead as those fallen in glorious battles across the Mississippi…” This passage from Lois Glass Webb’s fictional novel The Spectre of Death Rode the Land could almost be the mission statement for this website where we try to view the war not as the ‘war in the east’ (obviously) but also look to the personal level of the people–from both sides–involved, their lives and sacrifices.
Whereas we at Civil War St. Louis try to maintain a neutrality in our presentation, expect no neutrality from this novel. The Spectre of Death Rode the Land is purely skewed toward the southern-leaning side, with the Union side and its participants being portrayed as purely evil. In a non-fiction history this would be cause to criticize the work, yet as this is a fictional novel this slant of the perspective is actually one of this work’s greatest strengths. This novel offers a strong exploration on the nature of the place and the time, and a view of the people who lived the events and how they thought.
The novel begins with sunshine and pleasantry. The coming conflict, and those engineering it, are remote, distant things hardly to be considered relevant. There’s a sense that St. Louis, with the critical events and people there, is a place too far removed from this peaceful, pastoral land to ever have an effect upon it. Yet as the story progresses, the sense of evil forces, and the inevitable failure of the deluded notion of ‘neutrality’, draw nearer and nearer. A dark storm serves as both the literal and figurative herald of the conflict; both impossible to avoid, drenching one and all. There is no escaping the war. There is no dodging its consequences. There is no way to avoid choosing sides, for a side will be assigned to the people no matter how they seek to avoid it. Across the length of Spectre of Death this sensation of the war drawing closer and closer until it is all around is very powerful and quite well done. One of the most affecting scenes has a young woman, who once walked openly in the sunshine thinking about boyfriends and frivolity, sneaking through the black woods and brush to milk their hidden cow. The ominous sense of danger she felt from every bush and shadow is visceral, indeed–all to protect a single cow whose milk might be all that separates them from starvation. Such is the view of the times this novel presents.
Throughout Spectre of Death are synopsis-like historical interludes to place outside events in relation to those involving the characters. These bits are well-written and appear well-researched. They’re a welcome addition to a novel of this type.
The individual characters, and their storylines, are less interesting than is the novel viewed as a whole canvas. The primary female characters tend to have romantic subplots that did not particularly interest me. In part this was because these women showed spectacularly bad taste in their choices of men, with scenes of brutality and rape becoming almost redundant. As the cast of characters is huge, no particular character jumps out as being the focal character of the novel. I would have liked to have seen more depth explored in fewer characters. Some of the most interesting scenes seemed somewhat short and shallow in their presentation as we didn’t really get deeply into that character’s point of view.
The first chapter was a chore to read and stopped me down several times. No fewer than seventeen characters were introduced in the first four pages alone, with mini-bios of each attached–human characters, that is, as several pigs were also introduced by name and history. It was overwhelming to the point where I almost expected a quiz at the end to see if I remembered each character’s name and story. But get past that and you’ll be rewarded.
Despite some flaws, The Spectre of Death Rode the Land is a worthwhile addition to the field.