Friday, August 29, 2014

They dressed as men and went to war

We've been seeing many new historical novels about brave women who went to war in male disguise. All six of the novels below have publication dates in 2014 or 2015, and I can't think of a single event or benchmark title that got this mini-trend rolling, other than maybe an increased interest in women's history in general.  I've also been pondering earlier novels that fit this category and haven't come up with much, other than Sharyn McCrumb's 2003 release Ghost Riders, which had Civil War soldier Malinda Blalock (a historical figure) as a character.  Can you think of others?

These novels aren't fanciful in premise.  In actuality, there were many women who disguised their sex and fought in the US Civil War and in earlier battles, but recognition of and pride in their accomplishments has often been long in coming.  These works of fiction, some of which are based on the lives of specific historical women, help to spread word about their deeds and heroism in the popular consciousness.



A young woman who had been fighting for the Union in disguise has to hide her loyalties after she's wounded and gets trapped behind Confederate lines.  RiverNorth, June 2014.



A rare novel that looks at this scenario from the Confederate side, as two Southern sisters enlist in the Confederate army as new recruits, their secret known only to one another.  The so-authors are sisters as well.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2015. 




Her husband being too weak to go to war, an Indiana farm wife dons male garb and marches off to fight for the Union.  I'll have a review of this new literary novel shortly.  Little Brown, September 2014.



Believing her place is with her newly-wed husband, Rosetta Wakefield secretly follows him into the Union ranks, fighting alongside him and proving her worth in battle.  Loosely based on the life of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.  Crown, January 2014; out in paperback in September, with a beautiful new cover.



This novel about Massachusetts heroine Deborah Sampson shows her external and internal transformations during her service in the Revolutionary War.  See my review of Revolutionary as well as Alex Myers' guest post here.  Simon & Schuster, January 2014.



From the author of the 4-book Far Western Civil War series comes a new novel about Emma Edmonds, who signed on with the 2nd Michigan Volunteers under the name Frank Thompson.  BookView Cafe, April 2014.

28 comments:

  1. One of my secondary characters in my Civil War novels Promise & Honor and Honor & Glory disguised herself. I had a reviewer on Amazon say that she liked the character but found it unbelievable that a woman could succeed in hiding herself that way.

    I would love to write a novel on an unknown female soldier that I found in an article from an 1863 Missouri Democrat. I've blogged about her on a couple of occasions.

    I notice a couple of the covers here show very feminine looking women. That would be unbelievable. How did they manage to disguise themselves that way?

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    1. Hah, on the reviewer - since many women's disguises were never discovered by others.

      I'm sure the publishers emphasize the feminine on their covers since they want to sell books. In the first example (Yankee in Atlanta), the main character is in disguise only for a few pages at the beginning. The novel deals with the aftermath of her being wounded and how she handles being a secret Union supporter in enemy territory.

      I'm not sure where the graphic for Revolutionary came from. Could be an artist's image of Sampson created long after the fact.

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  2. Okay, that makes sense, although the makeup seems a bit heavy for the era on the first one. The book on Sarah Emma Edmonds (don't know why they didn't include her complete name) looks like it could be a real photo of her.

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    1. I agree - she appears to be wearing blush. For Call to Arms, it is a real photo of Edmonds in the background. I knew her real first name, but she appears to have preferred being called her middle name, which is what the novel uses. Her book "Nurse and Spy in the Union Army" is written as S. Emma E. Edmonds.

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    2. Cool! I just downloaded Edmonds's book. Of the fiction, I think I'd like the Revolutionary one. I try to stay away from Civil War fiction. I spot the inaccuracies and it spoils my enjoyment.

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    3. As an addendum, according to the preface for An Uncommon Soldier, a collection of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman's letters, she preferred to go by Rosetta. Makes you wonder what both women didn't like about the name Sarah! :)

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    4. I understand! I ought to download Edmonds' book also. I was just reading about its being a bestseller at the time.

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    5. I already have An Uncommon Soldier on my shelf, but I suspect the reason about the name Sarah has to do with the fact that it was a very common name back then!

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    6. I guessed that was why. It was a common name when I was born, too, but it's declined in popularity. I used to dislike my name when I was younger but have grown to like it.

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  3. I've read two of these and will be reading one soon, but I didn't know about Sisters of Shiloh. Going to put that on my wishlist. Thanks for telling us!

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    1. No problem! I have it on my wishlist too, since I enjoyed Kathy Hepinstall's Blue Asylum. It was quirky but good (or, rather, quirky AND good). The cover for Sisters of Shiloh just showed up on Goodreads. I like the old-timey look.

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  4. " ... and I can't think of a single event or benchmark title that got this mini-trend rolling, other than maybe an increased interest in women's history in general."

    I noticed it around the time Pirates of the Caribbean rolled into super-prominence and popularity -- all the female writers who lurved pirates and went looking for famous female pirates. That was, when? back ah -- google provides the year 2003. Though I think the popularity of women posing as men in fantasy and sf fiction began in the 90's -- along with the torture-comfort meme, which also included a strong theme of transgender, as often the primary characters were gay males, a masquerading for lesbian couples, among other aspects.

    It really rolled after the publication and popularity of Swords Point (1987) by Ellen Kushner, which won the World Fantasy award.

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    1. Yes, I remember some historicals about female pirates (esp Anne Bonny and Mary Read, either as the basis for characters or appearing as themselves) appearing about a decade ago. And the disguise plotline is ultra-common in historical romance, too.

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  5. I've only read one of these, I SHALL BE NEAR TO YOU. Lindsay McCabe just nailed the voice of a young woman who might have made the choice to go to war, and I so enjoyed it that I'll look for the others. Novels often have protagonists who are outsiders. Having a woman be that outsider in a war zone allows her to subtly hold a yardstick up to the men's behavior and the idea of war in general.

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    1. Good point about many protagonists being outsiders. I also liked McCabe's novel very much - the narrator's voice was gritty and authentic yet tender as she related her thoughts about her husband. In it and Revolutionary, the author goes into detail on how the women trained themselves to speak/act/dress as men and how they got away with it. Neverhome doesn't, at least not very much, but the narrator's voice strongly called to mind Rosetta from McCabe's novel. Since you enjoyed I Shall Be Near To You, I'd highly recommend that one as well.

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  6. That's a very long list, most of the titles on it do seem to come from the 90's with 2 - 3 years on either side of that decade.

    I haven't read any of them, but I did have to process many of these authors and the titles in my job, and they came from the publishers' (many!) varieties of Romance lines. Amazing how many titles per year Mary Balough turns out.

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    1. I remember reading a few disguise-themed romances some time ago but don't read as much in the romance genre as I used to.

      Many romance writers have 3-4 books appearing a year. I can't fathom that. Balogh's online book list at her website shows at least two books most years, going up to seven (!) for 2009.

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    2. Looking more closely, some on that book list of Mary Balogh's that I linked are re-releases, either of earlier hardcovers or updates with new cover art.

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  7. An author of two such historical novels myself, I'm pleased to be among good company! Star-Crossed (Knopf 2006) has been republished as Barbados Bound with a sequel Surgeon's Mate (Fireship Press.) I spent six years researching the first novel -- part of my research including crewing aboard HM Bark Endeavour replica on her Pacific crossing in 1999. That's where I KNEW that women could do what men do -- and get away with it!

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    1. Thanks for mentioning your novels and firsthand research, Linda - and absolutely!

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  8. Thanks for the list. I'd like to find even one of them.

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    1. Good luck! I hope you're able to.

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  9. There might be more children's/YA novels than adult novels on this subject. I can think of two off the top of my head, Girl in Blue by Ann Rinaldi and Behind Enemy Lines by Seymour Reit. Also, Brave Enemies by Robert Morgan, set in the American Revolution, features a cross-dressing main female character who gets dragged into the Battle of Cowpens at the end.

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    1. Thanks! I knew about the Rinaldi but not Behind Enemy Lines, or that Brave Enemies (which I haven't read yet) fit the category either. There's also a YA about Deborah Samson, Sheila Solomon Klass' Soldier's Secret.

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  10. Interesting comments following this post, Sarah. I had no idea there were so many books on this topic, though it shouldn't surprise us, I guess, that women disguised as men during war happened as often as it seems to have, since women were disallowed to do much as themselves during that time, and had little autonomy.

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    1. There's been an interesting discussion about it on the Historical Novel Society Facebook group, too. It still feels serendipitous to me to see so many historical novels about the topic within a short time.

      Linda Collison (who commented above) had some good points about the disguise aspect in her FB comments, too, in particular: "Most did it for food, shelter, and wages - not as a lark or because of sexual preferences, is my postulation. It was better than the poorhouse or prostitution."

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  11. Yes, most of the ones I came across did so for wages. A few went with their husbands or lovers as well.

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  12. I was going to mention Linda Collison's Patricia MacPherson nautical series. There were a number of cases of women disguised as men working in naval dockyards and aboard ships of war in the 18/19th century. My novel Blackwell's Paradise features a secondary character who disguises herself aboard a man-of-war to escape a life of prostitution.

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