Twelve year old India Moody lives in the Shenandoah Valley in the town of Berryville with her Pa, Cyrus Moody, her mother and her well-to-do best friend, Julia Pardoe. Julia's parents are India's godparents.
The novel opens in 1848 Virginia. Calvin Trimble, badly injured after having been thrown from his horse is carried to his home, Longmarsh Hall, by Cyrus. Longmarsh Hall is the home of Calvin and Geneva Trimble who have three boys, Emory, Rupert and Tom. The Trimble's head house servant, Micah Cooley, fetches Doctor Junius Hooks, who after examining Calvin, declares that he will soon die from a fractured skull. The loss of a father to a family of boys would be devastating. However, when Micah's wife, Ester, prays over Calvin he makes a miraculous recovery.
In gratitude for Calvin's life being saved, Geneva Trimble makes a promise to Cyrus Moody:
"Calvin and I will protect your household and children for all the days we have left on the earth..."In gratitude to Ester and Micah, they are granted their freedom and their own orchard land - ten acres of their best Belle of Georgia peach trees.
A third promise is also made that day - by the Spreckle sisters, Eloise and Grace, who had followed Cyrus, unseen, as he carried Calvin to Longmarsh. They saw everything that transpired and promised Geneva to keep secret what they had seen and heard that day.
In narrating her story, India states,
"Geneva Trimble's two promises at Calvin's bedside were kept. As for the Spreckle sisters' promise, it, too, was kept faithfully until it was dusted with a little time."The novel skips ahead twelve years to July 30, 1861. India is waiting for her best friend, Julia Pardoe to arrive at a party at the Trimble's to celebrate the Confederate victory at Manassas. Mr. Pardoe predicts "The war will be long and brutal" and that "The North will draft as many young men as they need into a war machine and they will slaughter us." The Pardoes are Quakers who are pacifists and do not bear arms nor fight in wars. Julia tells India that her family is leaving the Valley to live with her father's cousins in Ohio. Her brother Alden will be sent to Oberlin in September to prevent him from enlisting. Julia begs India to come with them but she does not.
Because of the war, life for India changes drastically. School closes and her father enlists in the Southern army despite the fact that he knows he cannot kill another man. Cyrus arranges for Emory Trimble, now twenty and well educated to tutor India in scriptures and penmanship. But India has other ideas; she is fascinated by Emory's glass room which contains all of his scientific experiments. India manages to convince Emory to teach her about chemistry and biology, especially about bacteria and molds.
Emory squirms in his chair. "...Girls aren't supposed to read chemistry or botany. Lots of men say they can't use it in life, and it hurts girls' minds to think like men."It is Emory who carefully nurtures India's love of natural science and in doing so, encourages her to work towards her goal of entering the college in Oberlin, Ohio which she has learned about from Julia. Emory prophetically tells India that after the war, a new world will appear.
"Do you believe that?" I ask him.
He toys with a pencil and then meets my eyes. "No. Not for a second do I believe that,..."
"Supposing this?" I tell him. "When science commences to hurt my mind, I'll scream, and then we can stop and go back to the Godly river."
"There will be a new day," says Emory. "The war will be the end of more than slavery. Women are going to do all kinds of things they were never allowed to do.....Women will go to college, own property, everything. You wait and see."
At Christmas the Trimbles are visited by a doctor from Germany who explains that the death of soldiers could be prevented if only the American doctors would sterilize their scalpels. But Dr. Junius Hook is offended by such a suggestion. At this dinner there is a confrontation between Tommy Trimble and a neighbour, David Hunter Strother who tells Tommy he is fighting for slavery.
Like most other women during this era, India watches as the men around her are gradually sucked into, and consumed by the Civil War. in the New Year, Stonewall Jackson's brigade passes through on their way to West Virginia. Tommy Trimble is among the men and he tells India that her father has been assigned to the quartermaster's corps. After a severe ice storm, India learns that Tom Trimble died of pneumonia. Tom's death makes Emory more determined to continue his research into saving the soldiers from dysentry, typhoid and pneumonia. Tom never finished the pills Dr. Germany gave him and Emory suspects that bacteria causes many illnesses.
When India tells Emory about Oberlin accepting women he tells her he will prepare her to write the entrance examination. However, after a visit by Jeb Stuart, a general in the Confederate Army, during which Emory again fails to convince Stuart of the need to keep the drinking water clean and sterilize instruments, Emory accepts a commission in the Confederate army as a captain in the medical corps. He is stationed at Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond.
In August of 1862, India's Pa comes home suffering from dysentery. He is forced back into the army by Captain Davis in September, still unwell. India has just received from Emory, a box of salicin pills for her father. India decides to take the medicine to her Pa and races to catch up to Captain Davis. India crosses into western Virginia and at Shepherdstown is told that a terrible battle is raging at the town of Sharpsburg. Near Sharpsburg, India encounters a group of people watching the battle from the hills and witnesses firsthand the slaughter.
"On the actual battleground below us the great mortars and Napoleon cannons boom, shooting their screaming shells, load as direct-overhead thunderstorms. From deep in the innards of the earth where I stand...come echoing rumbles. At each new fusillade the ground under my feet shudders and bucks with exploding rage."India sees "thousands of mouse-colored mounds", some of which move. A reporter tells her these are the wounded and dying soldiers. The battle only stops when night descends and the army of medics come to save those they can. A blood red crescent moon rises over a battlefield filled with thousands of dead and dying men. As she walks through the battlefield looking for her Pa, India sees people scavenging the dead and she herself takes the wallet from a dead Union soldier.
India returns home with the retreating Confederate army and learns the next day from Captain Davis that Pa passed away from a fever. He tells her that her father is buried on the north side of the Sharpsburg church. In an effort to help India heal her mind from what she has experienced, Calvin Trimble teaches her Latin while Geneva teaches her piano and water colours.
Death and destruction rage on, consuming more and more lives. Rupert Trimble dies in the bloody battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and Longmarsh Hall now becomes a field hospital. Emory and India grow closer together as Emory asks her to transcribe all his field notes so he can publish a paper on bacteria. But later as conditions worsen in the South, Emory asks India to leave the Shenandoah Valley because rumours indicate that Ulysses Grant will be Lincoln's next general and he plans to burn the Valley to starve the south. In March 1864, the rumours blossom into truth and India's Uncle Peter and Aunt Divine arrive to take India and her family to Kettletown. But life with her Aunt is unbearable and India leaves to return to Shenandoah Valley.
India returns to find the Shenandoah Valley burned, the crops destroyed and the beautiful orchard at Longmarsh Hall ruined. She now fears Emory is dead having not heard from him in many weeks. At Longmarsh Hall, Geneva and Calvin take in a wounded Confederate soldier. David Strother, now a captain in the Union Army arrives one day and demands they turn him over. Known for his temper, Strother has the Trimble's possessions burned and takes them away as prisoners of war, while India manages to escape.
India, Micah and Ester return to Longmarsh Hall and this time discover an injured Yankee soldier, Henry Bedell, has been abandoned to his fate. Bedell who was Strother's lieutenant is badly wounded and almost dead but India rides to Harper's Ferry and gets the necessary medicine and food. When the Spreckle sisters discover India's secret they tell Dr. Hook. It now appears that the South will lose the war and like many southerners, Hook furious at the black slaves, threatens Micah and Ester to turn over their soldier. However, at the urging of Micah, they manage to get Bedell to the Union Army at Harpers Ferry. There she meets up with David Strother who tells her he knows where Emory Trimble is and that he will help her. On their journey to Point Lookout Prison in Maryland, Strother confesses to India that he is ashamed of what he did at the Trimble's home.
India and Emory meet again and as they wait for the war to end, Emory encourages her to travel to Oberlin and enroll in the college there. He tells her he will wait for her.
Wells spent twelve years researching the Civil War and it pays off handsomely in this well written, realistic portrayal of life during the Civil War period. The story is told from the perspective of a young Southern girl whose views mirror those of the adults around her, that the war is about "the preservation of our way of life" in the South which the Trimble's neighbour, David Strother tells Tommy Trimble is a euphemism for slavery. Strother tells Tommy it's about "blacks down in the Delta get worked till they drop dead. Pregnant women. Children." However, Tommy argues that the South needs the slaves; "Without our slaves there would be no one to work the fields, Strother, ..." But it's apparent the people of the South know exactly what slavery entails as India states that "Polite Virginians actually prefer the word servant to slave. The newspapers call slavery Our Peculiar Institution, or sometimes The Southern Way of Life, but we all know what we mean by that." which sees the war as a fight for the euphemism of "the preservation of our way of life". Even Geneva Trimble tells India later on that "...No matter how slavery is justified, we know in our hearts it is wrong..."
Wells does an outstanding job portraying the horror of the Civil War without being too graphic. The author is able to convey how easily it is to make war but how hard it is to find peace. The reader comes to understand both the physical and emotional toll on soldiers and families who had to cope with severe trauma without the benefits of modern medicine. Ironically, the knowledge that would have saved thousands of American soldiers existed in continental Europe at the time. However, the practice of medicine in America during this period was significantly behind that of Europe. Thousands of soldiers on both sides lost their lives because doctors did not wash their hands.
Another aspect of war effectively portrayed in this novel is the conflicting loyalties that result when friends and brothers must fight against one another, neighbours against neighbours and soldiers who trained to together at military camp are now on opposing sides. David Strother is a Virginia boy, a neighbour of the Trimbles, but he enlists in the Union Army because he believes slavery is wrong. Micah and Ester's son, Caesar, fights for the North, because his parents were once slaves.
Wells also points out how war changes people. Strother was a man known for his temper prior to the war, but war weakens him further when he behaves badly at the Trimbles home when searching for the Confederate prisoner. He tells India that "War takes all humanity from a man," although India states that only some men experience this. Henry Bedell, a Union soldier who helped burn all the Trimble's belongings is a husband and a father to three small children. Yet after being helped by Micah and India, he realizes what he has done and tells India "I am ashamed of my army...We came to free the slaves, and all we've done is ruin your beautiful valley and humiliate your people." He tells her the pure, romantic notion of war is nothing.
At the center of novel is the main character, India Moody who grows into womanhood during the war. India holds fast to her dream of obtaining an education despite the fact that she is a woman and poor. Both her Pa and her Mama tell her it is impossible, but India is determined. India, with her determination to forge her own life and her perseverance during this difficult time, is determined to achieve a different, promising life for herself. Mama tells her that she is worried if India lives her life in a way other than what God has ordained she will not see her in heaven. But India feels that she cannot live the same life her as her mother; "'Mama, I cannot live a life such as yours,' I say as gently as I can." She has a desire to learn about the world around her and to help Emory make the practice of medicine actually help people.
Red Moon At Sharpsburg is a brilliantly crafted and historically accurate novel from the well-known author of the beloved McDuff stories.
Wells draws many well known Civil War figures into this book including Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and Uylsses Grant to mention a few. Despite the overall sad tone of the book, it ends on a hopeful note, with the possibility that Emory and India will share their lives together.
Those readers interested in learning more about the Civil War are directed to the following links:
Civil War Facts
Causes of the American Civil War
The Battle of Antietam
Red Moon at Sharpsburg by Rosemary Wells
New York: Viking Penguin Group 2007