The Burning Land: The Overstreet Saga, Book Two
- By David O. Stewart
- Knox Press
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski
- July 13, 2023
The Civil War comes vividly to life in this gripping tale.
The Overstreet family encounters the cataclysm of national civil war in David O. Stewart’s The Burning Land, the satisfying sequel to The New Land in his family-inspired Overstreet Saga trilogy. Moving from the American Revolution in Book One to the killing fields of the Civil War (and its aftermath) in Book Two, Stewart introduces readers to star-crossed lovers Henry Overstreet and Katie Nash.
In the small shipbuilding town of Waldoborough, Maine, Henry works at the docks during the day and finds inventive ways to court the beautiful Katie at night. As war breaks out in the spring of 1861, he searches his conscience while considering Katie’s strong antislavery positions. “It was well and good to be against slavery. Nobody was exactly for it. But was this the time for doing something about it? For him to do something?” When Katie leaves for Bangor to care for an ailing relative, she and Henry continue to nurture their relationship via the poignant letters that offer the novel’s strongest prose.
Henry’s sense of duty is ignited in July 1862 after famed one-armed general Oliver O. Howard — a native son of Maine — arrives in town to challenge “the hearts of those before him” and recruit new Union Army regiments. Moved by Howard’s sacrifice and stirring words, Henry enlists in the 20th Maine Regiment and heads off for training camp and a war he doesn’t fully understand. Meanwhile, Katie is buffeted by the demands of being a caregiver while also working temporary teaching contracts. Interestingly enough, Stewart modeled his characters after his own great-great-grandparents, David Overlock of the 20th Maine Regiment and Katherine Nash, both from Waldoborough.
Through Henry’s letters, the comedy and horror of war are made real — a testament to Stewart’s strengths as an historian and storyteller. The correspondence covers some of the major battle actions of the 20th Maine over two years of brutal marching and fighting, including the December 1862 debacle at Fredericksburg, where row upon row of Union soldiers were mown down while charging an elevated Confederate position on Marye’s Heights. Henry keeps silent on the gory details, but Katie’s response to news of the defeat speaks volumes for both:
“December 16, 1862: The newspapers carry terrible accounts of the battle at Fredericksburg. Father has finally given up denouncing General McClellan as a worthless blackguard in favor of rants about the incompetence of General Burnside. Truly, even I wonder that from the millions of men who live in this Union the man chosen to lead our armies seems to have no idea other than to charge the enemy uphill and into the teeth of his guns.”
Katie is a vortex of energy, caring for her parents and others, teaching, and founding a local Soldier Aid Society chapter that sends Henry and his comrades warm clothing and socks. Meanwhile, Henry is promoted to sergeant and helps repulse the Confederate attack on Little Round Top, July 2, 1863, during the Battle of Gettysburg. Stewart’s recreation of the battle is authentic and bloody, capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of fear as Henry and his men await the Rebel attack:
“After another two hours, the heat pressed like the heavy hand of God…the stagnant air was a miasma of soldier stink. Henry was used to how the army smelled, but this was stronger. The smell of fear? His lips curled.”
As battles accrue, so does Henry’s commitment to see the war through to the end…and to marry Katie while on a two-week furlough. Just like Stewart’s own ancestors, Katie and Henry are married July 4, 1864. But their bliss is short-lived, as Henry returns to his unit and is severely wounded at the Battle of Peebles Farm in the autumn of 1864. Katie nurses him back to an incomplete health; he suffers the effects of the cannon blast for the rest of his days. Stewart’s deft touch reveals both the physical and psychological changes wrought by war upon Henry and Katie, especially in their diverging views of their future life together.
It is in the postwar years that The Burning Land moves westward with disillusioned Civil War veterans looking for a new existence. Despite Katie’s wish to stay in Maine with their two sons and her extended family, Henry has a fiery vision of a better life away from the dying shipyards of the Northeast. It is in Chicago where he finds the spark to dream again:
“Around him the city shouted its ambition, its energy, its happiness and its anger, all spiraling up to the flat gray sky, heedless of nature or weather. America’s future would be written here.”
Uprooted to this loud, crowded, and dirty city, Katie and Henry face financial challenges and marital strains that test even the deepest love. Stewart thrillingly recreates another historic event — the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 — that killed hundreds and destroyed the homes and businesses of thousands, including the Overstreets. Stewart hews to the real lives of his ancestors throughout, while still surprising readers with unexpected twists and heartrending developments.
The Burning Land is a rewarding experience for historical fiction fans and does not require reading the first installment to appreciate the second. For those wanting a true-to-life story with indelible characters set during the American Civil War — and the transformative years after — this fits the bill in spades.
Peggy Kurkowski is a professional copywriter for a higher-education IT nonprofit association by day and major history nerd at night. She writes for multiple book review publications, including Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, BookBrowse Review, Historical Novels Review, BookTrib, Shelf Awareness, and the Independent. She hosts her own YouTube channel, “The History Shelf,” where she features and reviews history books (new and old), as well as a variety of fiction. She lives in Colorado with her partner (quite possibly the funniest Irish woman alive) and four adorable, ridiculous dogs.