Friday, October 12, 2012

Consecrated Dust - Book Review

Consecrated Dust: A Novel of the Civil War North by Mary Frailey Calland is a well-written story set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the first two years of the Civil War.   This is a finely-crafted, thoroughly-researched novel that will appeal to both men and women.  Ms. Calland has done an excellent job of blending historical details into a compelling narrative.

The story revolves around the romance between Clara Ambrose and Garrett Cameron.  Clara is the strong-willed daughter of a prominent Pittsburgh doctor.  Garrett is studying law when he meets and falls in love with Clara.  Their courtship is interrupted when Garrett joins the Pennsylvania volunteer reserves at the outbreak of the Civil War. 

Pittsburgh During the Civil War
The novel portrays the impact of the war on Pittsburgh as the city becomes a focal point for supplying men and munitions to the Union military.  When the men in western Pennsylvania enlist in volunteer regiments, the burden of supporting their families falls on the women.  Clara turns to her friend Anne Burke for support in dealing with these new challenges.  Calland describes how Clara and Anne handle this responsibility.  In Pittsburgh’s social structure it is fine for a poor Irish-Catholic girl to work, but it is not acceptable for the once-affluent Clara to take a job.  

While the novel describes the impact of the war on Clara and Cameron, Clara is the heroine of this drama.  The Ambrose family faces financial ruin as their savings are depleted and the military pay delayed.  Clara waits for mail from Cameron and her father while checking the casualty lists for their names. Compounding her problems are the unwanted advances from obsessed industrialist Edgar Gliddon.  Gliddon will do anything to capture and possess the elusive Miss Ambrose.  The more Clara resists his advances, the more Edgar is determined to pursue her with a self-serving mix of kindness and cruelty.  Gliddon personifies the profiteering industrialist who views the war as an opportunity to increase his wealth and demeans those who have volunteered to fight.  Marrying the despicable Edgar would solve her family’s financial problems, but she refuses to abandon her poor soldier.

Battle of Dranesville
While Clara deals with problems on the home front, Garrett confronts life and death struggles on the battlefield.  Private Cameron joins other men from western Pennsylvania at Camp Wright in the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves Regiment.  We follow Garrett and the other men of Company A, also known as the Pittsburgh Rifles, as their regiment is formally mustered into US service as the 38th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Garrett forms new friendships with his mess mates as he share bug-ridden hardtack and cramped quarters.  Calland describes in gritty detail the Pittsburgh men’s experiences in engagements at Dranesville, Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines Mills, New Market Road, Second Bull Run, South Mountain and Antietam.  Ms. Calland has wisely included maps to illustrate the role of the Pittsburgh Rifles in these battles.

Main Gate of Allegheny Arsenal
(Courtesy of Mary Calland)
Ms. Calland skillfully leads us to the dual tragedies that occurred on September 17, 1862 at the Allegheny Arsenal and in the Battle of Antietam.  Clara and Garrett make choices and sacrifices that lead them to face death within hours of each other. The terrible explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal killed 78 young women engaged in rolling bullet cartridges for the Union Army.  News of this civilian tragedy was overshadowed by the horrendous casualties at Antietam.

I also recommend readers visit Ms. Calland’s web page.   The site includes a section "Explore Civil War Pittsburgh" with a driving tour of the various locations in the novel, a chapter-by-chapter discussion about the people and places mentioned in the book, and Pittsburgh streets – then and now.  Calland has also provided a gallery of Civil War era pictures of Pittsburgh and a guide for teachers with topics for class discussions. 

Monument for Victims of Explosion
(Courtesy of Mary Calland)
Mary wrote Consecrated Dust to draw attention to the little-known explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal.  She believes that presenting history in an accurate novel makes it more absorbing and exciting.  The evidence for her belief is the enthusiastic support for her talks to a variety of audiences.  She traces her interest in the Civil War to reading Gone with the Wind as a child.

Mary Frailey Calland was born in Elmira, New York.  She has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Notre Dame and a Juris Doctor from Notre Dame Law School.  Her first historical novel, Barefoot in the Stubble Fields, is a coming of age tale about a young girl growing up during the Depression and World War II is loosely based on her mother’s life in Iowa.  Her next book deals with orphans in New York City were taken around the country by train.  At each stop, the orphans were lined up on the station platform in hopes they might be taken in by a local family.  This story also has family history as Mary's great uncle provided a home to one these children.  She has also done extensive research on the Elmira, NY Confederate prison camp.  Mary and her husband live in Pittsburgh.

I thoroughly enjoyed Consecrated Dust and enthusiastically recommend this novel of the Civil War North. 
We rate Consecrated Dust as

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