Night Watch: A Novel

  • By Jayne Anne Phillips
  • Knopf
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by Kristin H. Macomber
  • October 2, 2023

An exquisitely rendered tale set in turbulent antebellum West Virginia.

Night Watch: A Novel

How many ways can a work of fiction be woven into the facts of a bygone era? Most historic novels tap the “based on true events” template, where either imagined characters conveniently wander into moments ripped from the front-page news of the day, or the names we remember from our textbooks step out of the limelight and interact with common folk — think The Good Lord Bird or Forrest Gump. Both are familiar tropes, easily reckoned and often repeated.

But what do you get when an author opts to take a long look through a dusty portal into a seemingly hero-less, underappreciated decade, offering up rare insights into a time given little attention beyond a vague nod to carpetbaggers and the empty promise of 40 acres and a mule?

Enter Jayne Anne Phillips, the gifted writer and author of Night Watch. Had she given her latest novel a subtitle, it might have been, “The Fighting Has Ceased, but Not the Grief.” Hers is a story we likely haven’t heard before, centered in places we didn’t know existed, and populated with characters whose fictional experiences almost certainly echo the collective real-life suffering a generation endured during America’s antebellum years.

This is the final installment in Phillips’ war-novels trilogy, the previous two taking place during the Korean War (Lark & Termite) and Vietnam (Machine Dreams). The fact that she has reached back to the Civil War era and dedicated this book to her two grandfathers, both sons of West Virginia, with a special dedication to her maternal grandmother’s “Great Aunt Jenny, who welcomed her husband home from incarceration in Richmond’s infamous Libby Prison in 1865,” undoubtedly makes Night Watch the closest to the author’s heart.

Phillips has structured Night Watch around, well, structures. These include rustic cabins, with chicken coops and root cellars that conveniently convert to lookouts and hideaways. There’s also a hotel pressed into duty as a military hospital, where the wounded are ministered to, and where loved ones hope to find their missing-in-action sons, husbands, and brothers.

But the most important physical structure in Night Watch is an institution grand beyond imagination, a majestic sanctuary established for citizens desperately in need of humane mental-health care. Starting with its cover art, the novel contains a series of images of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, an institution that once existed — and still partially stands — in Weston, West Virginia.

Or, more likely, the pictures and floorplans scattered throughout the pages depict similar asylums from the same era — all, I presume, designed to the exacting specifications of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, the only individual mentioned in Night Watch who is not fictitious and who, in fact, has his own Wikipedia page.

Kirkbride, I wiki-learned, was famous for having introduced the benefits of what he described as “moral treatment” to patients suffering from a wide variety of 19th-century emotional disorders. Though we never encounter him as a physical presence in Night Watch, the legacy of his “Kirkbride Plan” is held in high esteem by asylum staff, and his quotes introduce many of the novel’s chapter heads. Clearly, Kirkbride was a force for good in years that desperately required compassionate caretaking.

But all is not structure and lost psychological-treatment history in Night Watch, not by a long shot. Phillips’ intricately woven storylines are engaging, and her characters range from endearing to haunting. There’s ConaLee, a young girl who has become caretaker to her mother, Eliza, who was a strong and proud woman until a wretched, nameless Rebel maniac upended both their lives. Then there’s Dearbhla, a self-reliant Irish immigrant whose backcountry ways are shunned by townsfolk until they need her herbal cures for their ailments or require help birthing and caring for their babies.

Within the asylum are workers who are in turn kind, territorial, devoted, well intended, and, when necessary, willing to bend the rules. From the titular night watchman, who goes by the name O’Shea, to his helper and young shadow, a wisp of a boy known as Weed, to the kindly Dr. Story and the powerful head cook, Hexum, all are defined by their era and their stations, along with a spattering of whatever terrors the Civil War has inflicted on each one individually. As the author tells us in her foreword, borrowing Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke quote:

“I’m saying it’s all inside us, the whole war.”

Early on in Night Watch, in a quiet moment before one of the most brutal battles of the war, Phillips gives her most complicated character a respite in the shade of flowering dogwood, where the soft petals remind him of the curve of his beloved’s hand. A second later, he senses the approach of a monstrous enemy, Confederate troops marching toward his regiment, their lockstep footfalls shaking, ever so gently, those fragrant and delicate blooms.

There are dozens of passages in Night Watch that deliver moments so vivid, so full of sensory awareness, that they demand both immediate rereading and the folding down of the appropriate page’s corner so they can be revisited.

Read this book for those passages. Read it to learn a history you didn’t know you didn’t know. Read it with a device nearby to look up things like Marsh Tacky, a gorgeous creature I’d never heard of. And do a little search on Kirkbride Plan asylums to see if there was once one near you — if you live in the Northeast or Midwest U.S., the answer is going to be yes.

Actually, just read this remarkable novel to be enriched in your understanding of an era that has been so very much forgotten. “The past is the present unrecognized,” writes Phillips. Read Night Watch to be enlightened.

[Editor’s note: Jayne Anne Phillips will appear at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 18, 2024, in Gaithersburg, MD. Learn more here.]

Kristin Macomber is a writer in Cambridge, MA.

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