It was maybe an hour after I finished reading Laird Hunt’s new novel Neverhome that the gears of my mind suddenly shifted and fell into place..
Up until that point, I had been alternately impressed by the novel’s quietly dazzling language and irritated by much else, with irritation predominating. There was so much about the book that didn’t seem to fit together.
Neverhome is the story of a young woman who calls herself Ash Thompson and goes off masquerading as a man to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. But it’s not a historical novel — too much happens to Ash, she meets too many outlandish characters (even a trio of one-armed jugglers), her story takes too many sharp turns (as if it were a retelling of “The Perils of Pauline”). It’s clear that Hunt isn’t striving for realism.
And it isn’t chick lit, even though Ash and her husband Bartholomew can seem to be 21st century people stuck back in the Victorian era. After all, Ash is making her way with success in a man’s world while her stay-at-home husband, described by one character as a “little fellow,” keeps the home fires burning. Ash is stronger and a better shot than Bartholomew, but he is a better cook and a better dancer. He sews, writes like a poet, and sprinkles some French cologne on each morning before going out to work in the fields.
Despite that, Neverhome isn’t about the trials and tribulations of being a woman (or of being a modern-ish man). It turns out it’s about being a human being — although I didn’t understand that until later.
“Her chemise got caught”
There were two things that should have enlightened me. One was an incident early in the book and early in Ash’s service in the army.
The soldiers were marching through a small town, and, as Ash tells the reader, a young woman, seeking a clearer view, ascended a sharp-branched tree:
Her chemise got caught as she climbed and it tore right off. That brought a roar up out of all the boys around me, and the girl in the tree took the chemise that she wasn’t wearing any longer and waved it at us. You could see that she was sorry, even as she waved her torn garment, that she was all of her bouncing in the breeze.
Quick as a wink, Ash clambered up the tree and covered the woman with an army jacket. And, by the end of the day, it was a tale being told throughout the battalion, and a song was being sung: “Gallant Ash went up the tree, helped a sweet old girl along.”
Of course, the gender-bending aspect of the exploit isn’t known. Even so, the story is so delightful that it becomes legend throughout the army, and, by the end of the war, even civilians know the song. Gallant Ash finds herself to be a minor mythic figure.
That should have tipped me off, but it didn’t. And neither did a conversation near the end of the novel between Ash and the wife of Ash’s former commanding general. Ash tells the woman about how she joined the army to fight while Bartholomew remained to tend the farm, and the wife responds, “Penelope gone to war and Odysseus staying home.”
I finished the book and, a short while later, was driving somewhere when that line came back to me and my brain’s gears shifted.
Neverhome is a modern Odyssey, a mythic journey in which Ash confronts the core questions about herself and the world and home. Indeed, as a word, “neverhome” is simply another way of saying “odyssey.”
Like Odysseus, Ash runs into a Circe. In a humorous scene, she encounters three Sirens (sisters, none older than 10, living alone on a farm, making daisy chains and gently trapping Ash for a time). She even speaks to her dead mother, and, like the returning Greek, finds her spouse surrounded by suitors of a sort.
Once I understood the mythic nature of Neverhome, I could see it as a masterful job of story-telling, and the many beautifully written passages that had troubled me made sense. One was a scene in which one of Ash’s comrades tosses the whitened skull of a soldier to a “local belle” watching the unit march past.
A number of us gave a good laugh when he did this. Not the belle. She neither laughed nor shrieked nor dropped the mossy thing but considered it a minute and then turned and set it carefully on the window ledge next to her.
For all its blood and wandering, The Odyssey is a tale of triumph. Neverhome, as befits the modern age, is more ambiguous.
As one character tells Ash, “I made it back, sure enough, but never felt I’d made it home.”
Patrick T. Reardon
This review originally appeared in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune on 9.12.14.