Engraved On The Heart: A Novel, by Tara Johnson
[Note: This novel was provided free of charge by Tyndale House Publishers. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
This is precisely the sort of Civil War romantic fiction that I greatly enjoy reading. When one thinks of Civil War romances , one often thinks of a romanticizing of the “glorious” lost cause of the Confederacy. One thinks of polite and spunky maidens from plantation and slave owning aristocratic families charming close-minded Northerners or something of that nature. And to be sure, this book does focus a great deal on the slave owning aristocracy of Savannah while providing a compelling wish-fulfillment sort of romance, but it is a far more interesting romance, and a far more appealing one in our own times, than one would likely expect. Indeed, there are other ways in which this novel plays against one’s expectations, being set in the beginning of the war and wrestling with divine providence and the derangement that can happen to those who are committed to wicked causes and forget the need to be committed to the well being of other people.
In about 400 pages this novel manages to cover a compelling romance that takes place over the first couple of years of war. Although this is her first novel, the author did a great job at providing the reader with two complex and compelling characters to root for in Keziah Montgomery, a shy young woman nearing spinsterhood in her early twenties (!!) who struggles with epilepsy and serves as a conductor for the Underground Railroad after being confronted with the ugliness of slavery thanks to a meeting she is invited to by the idealistic and passionate abolitionist Dr. Micah Grayson, a childhood friend of hers who finds out that he is partly black thanks to his paternal grandmother successfully passing herself off as white. The story shows the perils of life in Civil War Savannah with bombardments and the blockade and the losses at Port Royal and Fort Pulaski, the way that people dealt with the realities of the time through either serving to bolster the values of the plantation aristocracy on the home front or struggling to keep the dreams of freedom alive and take advantage of the opportunities of warfare to gain freedom. Ultimately, love prevails by providing Keziah herself with an escape from a loveless marriage to a cold older man as well as the danger of death or disgrace as a result of her clandestine activities and those of Dr. Grayson.
There are at least a few elements that make this book more appealing than I expected. The book deals realistically with the question of race and politics, showing how women in the Civil War were politicized by their times and by the increasing responsibilities placed on them in the absence of menfolk, and showing how Southern society had a rather large and ruthless form of community policing to try to enforce their bigoted standards on everyone else. Quite wisely as well, the author refuses to make this novel about contemporary standards, as she portrays sympathetic characters, including Dr. Grayson’s mother, who nonetheless had adopted certain elements of the cultural worldview of their times. The author walks a delicate line between providing a romance that would be viewed as anachronistic in that it appeals more to contemporary sentiments than the general sentiments of the time and providing an avoidance of heavy-handed contemporary relevance that would only serve to offend readers. Admittedly, those who are partisans of the lost cause will find little to celebrate here, but those who want a plausible and compelling romance that deconstructs the appeal of the glorious myth of the South, there is a great deal to enjoy here.
 This also applies to Civil War fiction in general, often: