- By Taylor Brown
- St. Martin’s Press
- 273 pp.
- Reviewed by Lisa J. Yarde
- January 7, 2016
An immersive page-turner set in the Civil War-era South.
An unlikely hero uncovers his true nature in Taylor Brown’s incredibly good debut novel, Fallen Land, set during the Civil War period. Callum is an Irish cast-off and former horse thief. He serves as a scout in a motley band of marauders, one of whom is Swinney, who rescued Callum from a shipwreck.
Callum, Swinney, and the other men follow a ruthless leader, the Colonel. Under his direction, they have pillaged, burnt, and murdered their way across a South already ravaged by the depredations of warfare. In Virginia, the band comes across a lone farmhouse, its only occupant a 17-year-old girl, Ava.
Once Callum saves her from one among his company, his reward is a gunshot wound and near-permanent loss of hearing in one ear. Later, he learns the fate of the girl. Determined to offer his protection, he steals the Colonel’s horse, abandons the other men, and returns to Ava’s farmhouse where the Colonel, who has ridden in search of his missing mount, catches up with Callum.
Before he can exact his revenge, a hail of bullets ends the Colonel’s life, and the strangers responsible intend to kill Callum, too. Quick reflexes allow him another opportunity for survival and a chance to make amends with Ava. The pair flees the farmhouse for the last time, but not before Ava confesses she won’t be leaving alone; during Callum’s recovery, the Colonel raped and impregnated her.
Callum and Ava’s determined trek through diverse and sometimes surreal landscapes toward a potential home in Georgia with Callum’s relatives is fraught with danger. Not only do the Colonel’s men hunt them, but those men are seemingly hell-bent on revenge under their new leader, the Colonel’s half-brother. Other potential threats take form in the shape of rapacious highwaymen hidden along dirt paths and Sherman’s army as it tramples the South underfoot, as well as the ever-present bitter cold and persistent gnaw of hunger.
Brief respites, such as an occasion offered by a moonshiner in the mountains, are rare, but in their banter, a strong bond develops between Callum and Ava. The traveling pair takes comfort in each other both emotionally and physically, which nourishes their collective will. In a chance encounter with Swinney, Callum discovers the true reason for the relentless pursuit, a motive that ensures he and Ava will never regain their freedom without grave consequences.
For a first-time novelist, the author demonstrates mastery of the ability to immerse readers in a setting and period. Brown set out to “interweave [the] characters’ story with the world as it was at that time,” and he nailed it.
While the events occur during one of the most tumultuous times in America’s history, the author focuses on the effects of the Civil War as seen through the eyes of those who are not caught up in its memorable battles, but nonetheless struggle for their lives. One terrific example is the protagonists’ exploration of a burnt-out Atlanta. Smoke rises from devastated, charred ruins and stirs the senses. While Callum and Ava’s pursuers revel in the worst of human nature, the author skims the gory details and allows readers to draw conclusions about the horrific nature of the actions the men perpetrate.
The novel is gritty and action-packed. Its pages rarely lack a scene without life-or-death consequences for the protagonists. The weight of any potential misstep, including reliance upon the kindness of strangers, is an awesome burden of which Callum, Ava, and by extension, readers, remain aware.
There is also little chance for sentimental reflection about the troubles faced by the characters; they do not dwell on such maudlin concerns. No one mourns the innocence lost, the lives shattered, or the injustices suffered.
Callum and Ava rush headlong into their fates, and their actions propel the reader along for the ride. The writing is mainly crisp and vivid, except for a few scenes narrated from the perspective of Callum’s feverish or dreamlike state. A minor distraction that does not detract from the brilliance of the story told.
Fallen Land should be of interest to lovers of historical fiction and those curious about the effects of the Civil War. Anyone who expects to learn of the era’s great battles will be disappointed; this is not a recounting of soldiers’ lives, but a chronicling of ordinary citizens and their endurance. A testament to the ability of people like Callum and Ava to maintain hope in the midst of despair.
Lisa J. Yarde is the author of seven historical novels, which take place during Europe’s medieval period, including works set in England and France, and a series about the last Muslim rulers of Spain. An avid reader and reviewer of historical fiction, Lisa lives in New York City.