Thursday, April 14, 2011

“What part am I to act in this great drama?”

According to her memoir, this was the question Sarah Emma Edmonds asked herself upon hearing President Lincoln’s call for men to join the Union Army. This seems to be the beginning of one of the most unusual soldier’s stories among the millions of soldier stories in the history of the Civil War.

And yet this is not where Carrie Jones chose to begin her first picture book, Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender.

As PW put it last week in their starred review of the title,

“Jones makes a confident departure from her bestselling YA novels with an entertaining and powerful Civil War–era story about living by one's own rules. Realizing she would never satisfy her father's desire for a son, teenage Sarah Emma Edmonds fled from Canada to America where she assumed the identity of Frank Thompson. Edwards then joined the Union Army, first as a male nurse, then as a spy, passing herself off as a slave and, later, as an Irish peddler.”

In some ways, Carrie’s book was the obvious choice for a topic for this post. There’s a soldier in Union blue right on the cover. But I like that it’s not a story about  the Civil War; rather, it’s a story about a person that includes the Civil War. That’s more interesting to me, ultimately. The Civil War isn’t just a lousy five years American history that ended at Appomattox Court House.  It was not a conclusive conflict—for the nation or for Sarah.

Now a seeming digression. If you’ve read this book—or really any of Carrie’s books, you know that Carrie has a keen awareness of injustice where gender and sexual orientation are concerned. So it was against that backdrop that Carrie’s book became linked, in my mind, with the pink-nail-polish-on-a-boy scandal that Fox News saw fit to create from an innocuous J. Crew ad. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t so sad.

It’s a common media mantra to say we continue to fight the Civil War every time a southern state flies the Union Jack or an elected official waxes poetic about the Confederacy. But Carrie’s story reminds us (or at least it reminded me) that the Civil War contained multitudes of struggles for self-determination. Struggles that continue to this day in America’s great drama.