Monday, November 13, 2023

Jon Clinch's The General and Julia showcases the multifaceted nature of an American icon

The most celebrated general of the Union army, he negotiated the Confederacy’s surrender wearing an ordinary soldier’s garb. Born to an abolitionist father, he married a Missouri slaveowner’s daughter who kept an enslaved Black woman as her maid. Having relinquished his military pension to become America’s eighteenth president, he lost his vast savings to a conniving fraudster.

Epic in perspective and feeling without being biographically comprehensive, Clinch’s stellar character-portrait of Ulysses S. Grant invites readers to ponder this national icon and the seemingly paradoxical facets of his nature.

In 1885, afflicted with throat cancer likely caused by habitual cigar-smoking, Grant reconsiders important life moments while penning his memoirs, desperately hoping its proceeds will rescue his beloved wife, Julia, and family from destitution after his impending death.

Many chapters (or groups of them) could serve as exceptional short stories; taken together, they comprise a memorable picture. We see Grant from within and through others’ eyes, as scenes of sublime prose conjure Grant’s strategic brilliance at Chattanooga, the awe he inspires, and his devotion to Julia and their children and grandchildren.

We also witness instances of frustrating passivity and naivete plus his evolving views on slavery, which evoke regret over his past ambivalence. While the story shifts around in time, it never loses its arc. Superb historical fiction.

Jon Clinch's The General and Julia will be published by Simon & Schuster tomorrow, November 14; I contributed this starred review for Booklist's Oct. 1 issue. The novel also received starred reviews in Library Journal and Kirkus, and it's one of my favorite books this year.

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