Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Soldier's Secret: The Incredibly True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero (Book Review)

Frank Thompson wasn’t your ordinary Civil War soldier. For starters, Frank was extraordinarily versatile, serving as a nurse, mail carrier, and a spy. By all accounts, Frank was unusually brave. And while Frank was slight of build, with cheeks as smooth as a girls’, the same could be said of many underage boys who enlisted to help fight for their country.  
            But Frank was no underage boy. Frank’s real name was Sarah Emma Edmonds, a young woman who had been living as a man for three years before enlisting in the Army. “A Soldier’s Secret: The Incredibly True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero” (Amulet Books, 2012), by Marissa Moss, is an unflinching account of the life of a Civil War soldier—one who must hide her true identity.
            Sarah Edmonds grew up on a farm in New Brunswick, Canada, skilled at hunting and riding a horse. When her abusive father arranges for her to marry an older man when Sarah is sixteen, she cuts off her hair, dresses in her brother’s clothing, and runs away from home.  She gets a job as Frank Thompson that allows her to travel, selling books door to door—and finds that she’s very good at it. But when President Lincoln calls for volunteers to fight for the Union, Frank is among the first to enlist. 
Frank helps amputate limbs, carries out the wishes of dying soldiers, slips into enemy camps disguised as a slave and a peddler woman, and delivers letters and messages to the troops. But she also has to grapple with being a woman in a man’s army, and finds herself falling in love with another soldier.
            Moss’s meticulous research comes to life in her graphic descriptions of the brutality of war: “Wildflowers dot the fields with yellows, blues, and purples, while birds chirp in the trees as if all is right in the world. But all around me I see horror after horror, dead men, broken men, men crying over the bodies of brothers, fathers, sons, and friends.”  
            The book is not all so grim. Some passages are downright funny: “Really, I don’t know anything about men’s bodies except what I’ve seen in the hospital. I can’t imagine sitting on a horse with that extra bit in the way. My God, I think, Jerome has that problem, and so does Damon, and Dr. Bonine, and the chaplain, and the officers right in front of me. I can’t look at any of them now without wondering which pant leg holds that extra central leg and how does it keep from getting squashed when they sit down?
Older teen and adult readers who like “A Soldier’s Secret” might also want to read “The Secrets of Mary Bowser,” by Lois Leveen (William Morrow, 2012). “The Secrets of Mary Bowser” is based on the true story of an escaped slave who poses as a slave in the Confederate White House to spy on President Jefferson Davis. And as a special bonus, Moss has written a picture book about Edmonds for younger readers: “Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero” (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2011)

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, November 11 2012 edition of the News-Gazette.