Cover photo by Ernest Bellocq
Two modern-day women unravel a family secret by following a trail of letters left by a Civil War prostitute, telling of shame, survival and the discovery of love.
When Shelley Fraser Mickle's debut novel appeared in 1989, it was said of her main character, "You are about to meet one of the most appealing young ladies in recent American fiction." Now, in The Occupation of Eliza Goode, Mickle gives voice to a woman's story rarely heard.
Born into a New Orleans' parlor house in the mid 1800s and sold to be a courtesan on her seventeenth birthday, Eliza Goode flees her arranged future at the outbreak of the Civil War. In an ironic twist on the Underground Railroad, she is a white girl passed up through Mississippi's plantations from one slave quarters to another until she emerges at the Confederates' Camp Corinth to be swept along to the battle of Manassas. Along the way, she meets Bennett McFerrin and his wife, Rissa, whose love story represents that of many couples when wives followed their husbands to war.
Using guile and her extraordinary beauty, Eliza transforms herself from camp-follower prostitute to laundress, nurse, and caregiver to Rissa when Bennett is taken prisoner by Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Fort Donelson in Clarksville, Tennessee. There, in union-occupied Clarksville, Eliza's final transformation frees her from her past.
But in this meticulously researched novel, Eliza's story is more than a tale of war, transcendence, and hardship. It is a story told in modern times by Susan Masters, a novelist in Boston, whose cousin, Hadley, finds Eliza's letters in an attic and implores Susan to write Eliza's story to answer questions she seeks for her own life. Hadley has a shameful secret of her own—a past, about which she cannot even bring herself to speak.
Set in the first summer of the Iraq war and three years after 9/11, this is not your usual Civil War novel. This story says much about how we became who we are, and who we might have become, had the Civil War not saved us as a nation.