Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Sentinels of Andersonville by Tracy Groot

 Read the first chapter excerpt here

Near the end of the Civil War, inhumane conditions at Andersonville Prison caused the deaths of 13,000 Union soldiers in only one year. In this gripping and affecting novel, three young Confederates and an entire town come face-to-face with the prison’s atrocities and will learn the cost of compassion, when withheld and when given.

Sentry Dance Pickett has watched, helpless, for months as conditions in the camp worsen by the day. He knows any mercy will be seen as treason. Southern belle Violet Stiles cannot believe the good folk of Americus would knowingly condone such barbarism, despite the losses they’ve suffered. When her goodwill campaign stirs up accusations of Union sympathies and endangers her family, however, she realizes she must tread carefully. Confederate corporal Emery Jones didn’t expect to find camaraderie with the Union prisoner he escorted to Andersonville. But the soldier’s wit and integrity strike a chord in Emery. How could this man be an enemy? Emery vows that their unlikely friendship will survive the war—little knowing what that promise will cost him.

As these three young Rebels cross paths, Emery leads Dance and Violet to a daring act that could hang them for treason. Wrestling with God’s harsh truth, they must decide, once and for all, Who is my neighbor?

The Sentinels of Andersonville by Tracy Groot was a moving novel that described the Andersonville prison in shocking detail, and which convicted me to the core. This was the second book that I read in as many days about harsh conditions in war prisons; the first was The Auschwitz Escape by Joel Rosenberg, and I was saddened to see the terrible similarities between both the dreadful conditions within the prison camps and even more so by the lack of protest and care shown by those on the outside. As Dance, Violet, and Emery discovered, most people, even if they profess to be Christians, are unwilling to take off the "blindfold" and to respond to the need around them, particularly when they are already hurting and those that are needy are their enemies. Tracy Groot, in her author's note, asked the readers to imagine if we had a prison nearby filled with terrorists who had killed our friends and family, would we want to reach out to them if they were starving and dying of preventable diseases?

I was convicted both by the attitudes of those in the novel and by Tracy's challenge to us in the note as it is so easy to ignore the needs of those we dislike when we are hurting ourselves. Another theme that resonated with me was a lesson that Dance learned near the end of the novel. Dance had worked at the prison for months and had seen so many soldiers die, starved and helpless. While he wants to help them, he knows that anything he does will not only sentence him to death but will probably only aid one prisoner. However, what Dance realizes in the end is that everyone should do what they can to help those in need even if the result seems small. Every little bit helps, even if only one person receives the care, and that is all that really matters -helping one's neighbor, no matter how hated they are.

The plot line of The Sentinels of Andersonville was masterfully written and wove together elements of suspense, sorrow, humor, and even romance in a touching way. I appreciated the amount of detail that the author put into the novel, particularly the truthful descriptions of the prison that have been preserved through the diaries and words of the Andersonville survivors. While sad and even horrifying, these descriptions and the journal excerpts helped me become more immersed in the story and understand the conditions the prisoners faced. The characters were also well developed and very realistic. I immediately felt like they were friends of mine, and I was brought to tears and even anger as the story continued and as the main characters faced hardships, loss, and failure. I loved Violet and her family. She and her father were not afraid to fight for what was right even if it meant 'treason'. Her siblings were amusing and charming in their own ways, especially the youngest, Posie, who won my heart and the hearts of the soldiers (on both sides) that she came in contact with. I also really liked Emery and Dance. Both men had tender yet courageous hearts and were willing to die to save others. The relationship that developed between Emery and Lew was also both amusing at times as well as truly touching. I liked how it showed that friendships can develop in the most unlikely of places and that the Civil War really was fought between brothers, between men who had shared experiences, livelihoods, and interests.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel immensely. Sentinels of Andersonville was not a lighthearted read, but it caused me not only to think but to laugh, to cry, and to be angry at the injustices that occurred along with the main characters in the novel. This is definitely one of the best books I have read this summer, and I would highly recommend this novel to any reader who appreciates a heartfelt historical novel that challenges the reader to become a more compassionate person.

I received this novel from Tyndale House, and the opinions in this review are my own. 

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