The Tamarack Tree: A Novel of the Siege of Vicksburg

by Patricia Clapp

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 144

The novel is set in Vicksburg, Mississippi, an important town in the antebellum South (the South before the Civil War). Home to plantation families who depend on cotton and slaves to make a profitable and comfortable living, Vicksburg is a strategic trading port because of its location on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Memphis. Located on high bluffs overlooking the river, Vicksburg is the key to controlling riverboat traffic. Because of the economic and strategic location of the town, the Union army needs to conquer Vicksburg in order to divide the South. The siege of this river port is a crucial battle in the Civil War, and the loss of Vicksburg foreshadows the fall of the South. Thus, Vicksburg is the perfect backdrop for telling the story of a girl torn between her Southern friends and her love of a Union soldier.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 299

Clapp recounts that the history taught in grade school was "always just text." There were "no words" or personal feelings— such as fear, joy, or sadness. Thus, the author relies on the journal or diary as a literary device for Constance and The Tamarack Tree. The first-person account provides an immediacy and relevancy to the reader, and proves much more interesting than a history textbook.

Clapp presents important characters and events of the Civil War—Abraham Lincoln and General Grant—by mentioning articles that appeared in newspapers of the day, such as the Citizen. Incorporating news reports allows the reader to discover these events as Rosemary does. Thus, the author avoids writing a textbook history of the war and siege of Vicksburg.

Clapp believes writing historical fiction allows "history to speak for itself." As a woman of the theater, the spoken word— dialogue—has always been an important part of her life. Clapp uses Southern colloquialisms sparingly. The Southern dialect is hinted at—just enough to give the reader the idea that the spoken word was different in Civil War Vicksburg than in the United States today. The reader also is provided a glimpse into the landscape of the South. Rosemary describes the first time she sees slaves working in fields along the Mississippi River. A few details about the clothing, housing, and food present in Vicksburg are noted. The author then is able to describe how the day-to-day necessities change as the siege of Vicksburg progresses. Rosemary, Mary Byrd, and others must change their eating, sleeping, and dressing habits to survive the siege. Their expectations about daily comforts change the longer the city is surrounded. The plantation families of Vicksburg who survive the "battle" realize there is more to life than beautiful dresses, lavish parties, and sumptuous dinners.

Social Sensitivity

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Slavery and how the characters feel about it define relationships in the novel. Rosemary and her friend Mary Byrd share their interest in boys, clothes, and parties. However, Rosemary and Mary Byrd disagree about slavery. Even so, they are able to remain friends. Conversely, Rosemary and Jeff agree about slavery, but disagree about which side to support before he goes off to fight. Mary Byrd and Derek disagree about slavery, and it almost ends their relationship. Even though the issue of slavery plays a prominent role among the characters in the novel, the graphic and harsh life of a slave is only alluded to in this novel. Other novels such as Uncle Tom's Cabin can provide a more detailed account of slave life. However, the varied points of view held by Northerners and Southerners about slavery are well covered in the novel.

Southerners are portrayed as "three-dimensional" in this novel. They are gracious and honor bound, with a duty to family and state, yet willing to defend a way of life built on the backs of slaves. Although the reader is not given a detailed account of the drudgery, fear, and misery of being a slave, the reader is given a glimpse into the female world of the South. Women members of plantation families are portrayed as ignorant about the lives of the men, women, and children who labor in their fields and homes.

The characters of Hector, his wife, Amanda, and their child are representative of "Free Negroes" living in Vicksburg. Clapp hints at the role free men and slaves played in the underground war against slavery. Blacks and whites, Yankees and Southerners, men and women were participants in the war against slavery. Black men and women were active in fighting slavery through the press, the Underground Railroad, and fighting against the South in the Union army.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 221

"Clapp, Patricia." In Contemporary Authors, ed. Carolyn Riley, 25-28. Detroit: Gale Research, 1971, 150-151. A brief sketch of the author and bibliography.

Clapp, Patricia. "Letting History Speak for Itself." The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics. (Contributions to the Study of World Literature No. 28.) Ed. Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989, 269-275. Clapp expounds on writing historical fiction for young adults.

"Clapp, Patricia." In Something about the Author, ed. Anne Commire, vol. 4. Detroit: Gale Research, 1973, 50-51. A brief sketch of the author and a bibliography.

Clapp, Patricia. In Something about the Author Autobiography Series, ed. Adele Sarkissian, vol. 4. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987, 129-145. An extensive biographical entry with bibliography.

Howell, Margaret C. Review of The Tamarack Tree. School Library Journal 33 (October 1986): 188. A short review.

Stable-Perez, Maria A. "A Kaleidoscope of Perspectives in Children's Literature about Slavery and the American Civil War." The Social Studies 87, 1 (1996): 24- 31. The author discusses and reviews books of interest to elementary, middle, and junior high readers in learning about American attitudes and values during the Civil War. The Tamarack Tree is discussed.

Review of The Tamarack Tree. Booklist 83 (November 15, 1986): 501.

Review of The Tamarack Tree. Horn Book 62 (September 1986): 594-596. A lengthy and positive review.

Review of Witches' Children. Booklist 78 (May 15, 1982): 1254.

Review of Witches' Children. Center for Children'sBooks Bulletin 35 (March 1982): 123.

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