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Civil War general seeks redemption in ‘A Separate Country’

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Book Review

“A Separate Country”
By Robert Hicks
423 pages. Grand Central Publishing. $25.99.
Meet the author 7:15 p.m., Oct. 26, Georgia Center for the Book, DeKalb County Public Library, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. 404-370-8450 Ext.  2225. www.georgiacenterforthebook.org

By Sarah Sacha Dollacker
The excess of death at the Battle of Franklin, in particular, would weigh heavily on Gen. John Bell Hood for the rest of his days.
When it became clear that the South would lose the Battle of Atlanta, Hood ordered the Confederate stockpiles in the city to be burned. As Sherman torched the rest of the city, Hood marched north, attempting to draw the Union army out of Georgia.
When Hood met the Northern forces again, it was in central Tennessee in two battles that would prove devastating for the Confederacy and would eliminate Hood’s army.
Based on actual events from Hood’s life, Robert Hicks’ “A Separate Country” meets the battle-hardened general after the Civil War, when he retreats to New Orleans to create a different kind of life.
The tale opens with Hood on his deathbed. Full of remorse and regret for the thousands of deaths he needlessly ordered in Franklin, this haunted soldier is not the same arrogant man who came to Louisiana years before. After a decade of happy family life, business disappointments  and assaults against yellow fever, Hood now understands the weight of the atrocities he has committed.
In his final hours, Hood calls Eli Griffin, an ice cutter and orphan from the devastation at Franklin, to his bedside. Everyone in New Orleans knows that Hood has written a book, but the papers that he hands to Eli are not the apologia of his tactical decisions but a memoir of his life after the war — a memoir that acknowledges both his profound errors on the battlefield and his love for his family.
Along with the memoir, Eli is given a task: He must find a known killer from Hood’s past, the only person who can determine whether the general has atoned for his grave sins. Confused and intrigued, Eli agrees, and he is plunged into Hood’s mercurial life.
Told in triptych from the perspectives of Hood, Eli and Hood’s beloved wife, Anna Marie, “A Separate Country” ponders two of life’s greatest questions: Can we ever truly atone for our sins; and, if this is possible, how? Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous Reconstruction, Hood’s evolution from warrior to humanist is along a predictable path, but it is a relevant journey.
Hood’s ruthless war experiences exemplify the antithesis of love, but the novel makes clear that only love will save him. It is not just familial love, nor love of self, that is the redemptive quality — though these are critical — but the expansive love of humanity.
Hood’s learned ability to see the duality of cruelty and caring in other people, to understand the multitude of emotions and capabilities that lie in the heart of all men, enables him to accept and do penance for his own failings. Sins, large and small, the novel suggests, are still sins and the path to atonement lies always through love and forgiveness.
With his second novel, after the bestselling “The Widow of the South,” Hicks takes us once again to the complex, turbulent South following the Civil War. In 1870s New Orleans, the war is over, but other battles are being waged. The South, like Hood, is coming to terms with its defeat and what it means to become whole again. African-Americans are targeted with violence like never before, and deadly yellow fever simmers in the bayous waiting to for more summertime victims.
Hood, Eli and Anna Marie wade through these quagmires to create a better life, one that acknowledges the importance of relationships as the means to salvation. With insight and sensitivity, Hicks delicately investigates the transformation of a haunted man and the people who help him find his separate country — a place of love, rather than war.

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