Laird Hunt: “Neverhome”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Last week’s StoryWeb episode featured Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the Confederacy. This week, I am delighted to share Laird Hunt’s 2014 novel, Neverhomea very rare look at the Civil War from the point of view of one of the 400 women who disguised themselves as male soldiers. Neverhome comes as a refreshing new take on a subject we all think we know: the Civil War.

Hunt, a graduate of the MFA program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and a faculty member in the University of Denver’s creative writing program, has written several other laudable novels, among them Indiana, Indiana and Kind One. But with Neverhome, he hit it out of the park. The book was quite favorably reviewed in the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times, being named as an Editor’s Choice.

His protagonist/narrator is Gallant Ash, AKA Constance Thompson. Before the Civil War, Constance is living in rural Indiana, married to Bartholomew Thompson. As the novel unfolds through flashbacks, we learn that theirs is a marriage of two gender-ambiguous individuals. Certainly, neither meets the stereotype of what a “real man” or a “true woman” should be according to 19th-century ideals. Bartholomew is gentle and soft, where Constance is the firm leader in their marriage and most definitely the one who would head out to war. As Constance/Ash says, Bartholomew was “made out of wool and I was made out of wire.”

As the war gets underway, Constance enlists, taking the name of Ash. In a memorable scene near the beginning of the novel, he/she is dubbed “Gallant Ash” and is known by that moniker for the remainder of his service in the Union Army.

When I read Neverhome, the story definitely drew me in. Would Gallant Ash pass as a male soldier? How would he/she handle physical necessities? And how would his/her courage stand the trials of the war? Adding to my interest in the novel was the fact that it is modeled loosely on Homer’s Odyssey. As I became aware of that structural element, I began to look for the ways Hunt would play on that epic of a warrior trying to make his way home.

But to me, Gallant Ash’s voice was even more compelling than the story. The dialect Laird Hunt creates is rarely heard and is completely captivating. Anyone who knows my work knows that I absolutely love dialect done well. Whether it’s Huck Finn’s rural Missouri dialect or Granny Younger’s rhythmic speech in Lee Smith’s Oral History, Mrs. Todd’s coastal Maine accent in Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs or Kate Chopin’s capturing of Cajun dialect in Bayou Folk, I love authors who help us hear the way Americans from all regions speak.

Until I read Neverhome, I never thought of rural folks from Indiana as having a dialect – but Hunt brings Gallant Ash’s manner of speaking to life so well that I found it almost impossible to put the book down. And how Gallant Ash spins a yarn! From the first page of this first-person narrative, I was hooked.

Hunt says that “the seed for Neverhome was planted . . . when my wife bought me a copy of An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.” You can learn more about “Lyons” Wakeman and the hundreds of women who fought on both sides of the Civil War by visiting the Civil War Trust website. See also the Smithsonian’s interview with Bonnie Tsui, who wrote She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War. You’ll also find DeAnne Blanton’s three-part article for the National Archives interesting and compelling. And if you want more, read the book Blanton wrote with Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. A reading group guide to Neverhome provides additional insight and questions for consideration.

Want to get a taste of Neverhome? Check out this lengthy preview at the publisher’s website. If you’re like me, you’ll want to get a copy of the book so you can hear all of Gallant Ash’s story.

Watch:Watch as Laird Hunt reads from Neverhome. From 06:00 to 11:49, you can watch him as he reads the scene in which Gallant Ash encounters another woman disguised as a soldier.

Image Credit: Laird Hunt, used with permission from