Author: Erin Lindsay McCabe
Rating: 4.5 stars
I read this book through the library.
It seems like there are an awful lot of books being published right now about women crossdressing as soldiers. I don’t know what it is, but I just keep seeing them. But in any case, I’m glad this was the one I picked up.
Inspired by letters written by a female Civil War soldier, I Shall Be Near To You is the story of Rosetta, a young woman who decides to enlist in the Union army to be with her husband, Jeremiah. As newlyweds, Rosetta and Jeremiah face the usual sorts of marital trouble, and some quite unusual troubles as well, and Rosetta struggles to prove herself–to her husband, the Army, and, ultimately, herself–and faces down the dangers of war.
Before all else, this story is a romance. As a war story it is good, as an historical novel it is good, but it is the relationship between Rosetta and Jeremiah that is the hinge of this story, and what ultimately makes it great. I am not a great believer in romance or some mythical, chocolate-and-diamond cliched conception of “true love.” As such, I kind of expected this book to be sap city. Instead, I adored it. I loved Rosetta and Jeremiah and the evolution of their relationship. They were so real. And in the end what happened to them completely devastated me, which is a measure of how invested I became in them as characters in such a short time. I am not a crier, particularly when reading books, but after this one I definitely needed a good sob and a half pint of ice cream. No spoilers–but have your tissues handy, guys.
The secondary relationships in the novel are also well developed. Because she’s joined up with her husband’s regiment, Rosetta has also joined up with his friends, boys she grew up with who alternately resent her and feel responsible for her, and even put her in danger of revealing her secret. And, as with any female-in-disguise soldier story ever, there’s that one guy. The guy who thinks “Ross” is pretty cute, and hey, what disconcerting feelings that brings up, right? But, unlike most of those other stories, this soldier, when he finds out her secret, doesn’t automatically breathe a sigh of relief at the idea he was totally straight after all underneath all that messy attraction nonsense. It was complex and painful and so wonderful to see, because that’s always one of the things I don’t buy in women-in-disguise stories–the idea that, in the end, the men attracted to the heroine are extra super straight because they magically saw through her disguise.
Rosetta is a remarkable character, with a truly engaging voice. At first I worried, because this book is written with my nemisis–first person present tense, ugh–but I was quickly won over because it was just such a joy to be in Rosetta’s head. Growing up, she is somewhat of a tomboy, acting as her father’s surrogate son. She never feels that she is good enough when it comes to being a woman, which makes her decision to cut off her hair and run off with the Army a fairly easy one. Ironically, once she gets there, she tends to land the most “womanish” roles–cooking, hospital duty–despite her willingness and insistence on participating in all levels of combat. She has to come up with her own definition for what makes a proper wife, what patriotism truly means, what she is capable of as a woman, how she fits into her family. And it was great to see her do just that.
This was a fantastic book, guys. Beautifully written with strong, well-developed characters. It broke my heart, but honestly, that’s the highest praise I can give it. Instead of being a story that was nice but ultimately forgettable, as books of the kind tend to be, it was strong enough to get hooks into me, and I can’t get it out of my head.