The Tamarack Tree: A Novel of the Siege of Vicksburg

by Patricia Clapp

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Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

As in her other historical novels and biographies, Clapp presents a strong female protagonist—whether real or invented. The Tamarack Tree is the only novel in which she created the heroine—although Clapp used actual diary entries kept by a young woman during the siege to help create the character of Rosemary.

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Even though Rosemary is faced with her mother's death, moving to a new country, and war, this is not a sad or depressing work. Rosemary is an optimist, and she believes in herself. She confronts her problems and deals with them the best she knows how and consequently becomes stronger through her adversity. She finds friends, romance, and courage. The story has a happy ending as Rosemary and Jeff, and Mary Byrd and Derek, fall in love and marry. It is a Hollywood ending to an historic chapter in American history.
Mary Byrd is gracious, friendly, flirtatious, and a supporter of the slave-based economy driving the South. Like many Southerners, she believes that slaves are "childlike" and need protection. Mary Byrd explains that the slave owners provide all necessary comforts for their slaves in return for a hard day's work. Thus, the master and the slave are dependent on each other to "get along." Despite Mary Byrd's and Rosemary's differing sentiments, they become best of friends.

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Rosemary is horrified that any human being could actually own another person. She is stunned that such gracious Southern families would feel no remorse or hypocrisy about owning a person in the United States of America—a country with a constitution promoting freedom. Several characters in the story influence Rosemary's antislavery sentiments. Derek, Rosemary's brother, and Jeff, her love interest, support the Union's call to end slavery. Rosemary's Uncle William and his "free Negro" assistant, Hector, are active members of the Underground Railroad. Their activities are kept undercover until the end of the story when Rosemary and Mary Byrd discover a secret tunnel used by escaping slaves.

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Latest answer posted June 27, 2007, 4:46 pm (UTC)

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The male characters in the novel are supporting actors in this drama. Their characters are developed in relation to Rosemary and Mary Byrd—primarily as romantic interests. The characters of Derek and Jeff represent the beliefs held by many Northerners regarding the moral issues surrounding slavery. On the other hand, Ben voices ideas held by many Southern boys and men who thought the war would end within the year as it was a matter of personal honor to defend one's state from invasion. Many Southerners—even the many who did not own slaves—resented Northern attempts to dictate how Southerners should live their lives.

The Tamarack Tree ultimately demonstrates that the reasons for the Civil War were not just about slavery, but about a way of life and an economic system. Derek attempts to explain to Rosemary the points of view of Yankees and Southerners about the rationale for war. Most Southerners were not slave owners. Some Northerners did not believe blacks should have the same opportunities as whites. Moral, political, and economic forces influenced which side of this conflict was "right" for the men and women of the South and North. Because the war and the causes it represented were often personal issues as well, brothers fought brothers, and families were divided. This division between governments, states, and families is paralleled by the personal decisions made by the male and female characters in the novel. The Tamarack Tree is a story of conflict and its necessary role as part of the process to become whole—in order to grow as an individual and as a nation.

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