Doc said, "he's not the same as the Leander who marched off. War changes folks."
"Like a river," Polly said. "My pap al'ys said folks is like rivers, ever a-changin' and ever a-changin' others."(p. 310)
Part One, Leander Jordan's story, opens with this 15-year-old boy longing to be recognized as a man by his parents and Lila, the girl he pines after. He decides that the best way to do that will be to enlist and gain their approval. It's not as simple as that. Wiechman portrays his dilemma on the sleepless night before Leander leaves his Ohio home: "Doubts crowded into bed beside him, and he tried to push them out." (p.51)
His life as a soldier isn't easy and his small stature makes him a brunt of frequent jokes. As much as he desires to be brave and show that he is equal to the task, early in his enlistment he accidentally causes his gun to explode. He injures himself and his best friend, Given; the pain of his humiliation is almost as great as his physical pain. Wiechman depicts his agony well:
"Army life went on without him while he lay on a cot, alone and one-armed. There were no other cots because no one else was injured. There hadn't been a battle. Leander wasn't a casualty of war. He was a casualty of carelessness. He had dishonored his uniform…" (p. 79)Leander is full of self-loathing while he is recuperating in a makeshift army hospital. Paul Settles, a young, gentle steward nurses him and other wounded soldiers back to health. When Leander dictates a letter home, he finally accepts his injury.
"He had lost his arm. It was time to reconcile himself to that. And now he had confessed his carelessness to his folks. He had to accept his new life, one without Lila or his right arm. At least it was a life." (p.118)
Leander guesses that "Paul" is a girl but hesitates to disclose his knowledge. "He knew she was a girl, and maybe she suspected he knew, but he had to treat her like the soldier she pretended to be. She deserved that." (p.127)
When Leander wakes up one day and Paul has left the hospital with other Union soldiers, Leander "is stabbed through the heart." Part I ends with his realization that when he'd left his parents, he hadn't been a man at all. "I need to be a man, he thought. I can't let that girl-pretending-to-be-a-boy be more of a man than I am."
Part Two opens with Polly's difficult decision to leave Leander and the hospital. Stuffing her emotions inside she realizes, "The army had no place for a girl. And an orphaned girl had no place in the world. She had to remain a boy." (p. 138)
As part of a foraging mission, she is caught by a group of Rebs and her need to continue pretending she is a boy becomes more and more acute. Along with her three companions she is forced onto a train that brings them to Andersonville Prison. Wiechman does an excellent job showing what life was like in this stinking, dirty, fearful place:
The stockade was good-sized, close to twenty acres by Polly's guess, but its high walls managed to hold in every foul odor she could imagine. The filthy stench of human waste, disease, and rotting flesh pressed against her, while outside the walls those tall trees hoarded their piney scent.
Tents and makeshift shelters clustered nearly every inch of the camp, even two low hillsides that straddled a scummed-over stream. Thousands of shelters, some mere blankets on poles.
Polly hoped the nasty stream wasn't their drinking water. In the midst of a swamp, it was putrid green and reeked of human waste. A narrow channel at one end formed board "sinks," an open place for prisoners to answer nature's call. Alive with flies, the stream flowed through to catch the droppings.Since she worked in the hospital, Polly possesses rudimentary knowledge of disease and infection control. She finds purpose and meaning in her life by taking care of her companions. Along the way she finds friendship and shelter from a young man, Given, who guesses her secret, but promises not to tell anyone.
Polly combats hunger, exhaustion, her own fears of being discovered, and sadness when her companions die. Throughout the story she yearns for Leander, wishing she had stayed with him months earlier. The last straw is when Given succumbs to scurvy and dysentery. She nurses him back to health and chooses to stay with him after Sherman takes Atlanta and a prison exchange occurs.
I've already told you too much about this heart-warming story so I won't reveal the beautiful ending. But you can bet that bravery, courage, and determination are the victors--and that you will want the story to keep on going even after "the end."
Kathy is part of a group blog, Swagger. If you type in "Like a River" in the search function (top left) you'll find a list of posts she's written about her book. It's always inspiring to read other writers' book journeys.