A Soldier’s Book

In A Soldier’s Book, Ira Cahill Stevens, a Union soldier, is captured during the Battle of the Wilderness, and taken to a Confederate prison camp. The prison is overcrowded and unspeakably dirty, the prisoners are starved and tortured, and disease is rampant. Pens and books become valuable as a way to keep one’s identity, and as trade for food. Then raiders come through the camp at night and steal these precious belongings. Cahill keeps a diary of all this.

Announcements are put up telling when the next prisoner exchange is scheduled, and often within the day those plans change, keeping the men in a constant state of hope and frustration. Some of the men are also consumed with digging tunnels for escape. In a twisted game, the prisoners dig tunnels, the guards find out and fill the tunnels in, and the prisoners go back to planning the next tunnel. Because the prisoners seem to lose all sense of time, this ritual can remain meaningful, and is a symbol for the reader of the constant battle between feeling hope and feeling that hope is futile, and this painfulness of hope is Cahill’s primary struggle. As a well-behaved prisoner, he is allowed to help the doctors to care for the sick and dying, and in doing so he gains an increasing sensitivity to the suffering of his fellows, and a sense of the bigger picture of human life.

Joanna Higgins is good at capturing the sense of a diary. Entries are short, to the point, and often realistically fragmented. Higgins used as her sources the actual journal of a Union soldier, and numerous other accounts, and this novel certainly feels authentic and rooted in history.