In this novel, Keneally has placed his characters against the backdrop of the American Civil War. The war dates from 1861 to 1865, but Keneally has focused on one year, 1862, a year when the Confederacy was still feeling optimistic about its chances to win, but also when Confederate generals were becoming increasingly nervous about the need for a decisive victory, preferably one that included a successful invasion of the North. The South was outnumbered in nearly every area: arms, munitions, miles of railroad track, manufacturing capabilities, goods produced, to name a few, but Southerners were counting on the military training prevalent among the young men of affluent plantation families. Southerners liked to say that one Southern soldier was worth at least two, maybe three of the "Yankee" soldiers. Although his characters begin the novel still embracing the idea of the glory of defeating the Union and protecting the chivalrous Southern way of life, Keneally does not glorify war, but rather produces startling, disturbing images of the destruction of human beings--physically and emotionally--that show it is anything but glamourous.
Whether or not the plot is difficult to follow is up to the individual reader to determine; however, in reading this novel, one must be aware not only of the plot developments, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the development of the characters as they wrestle with the realities of American fighting American.