I’m not always a big fan of historical fiction because so many books in that vein don’t do much more than fictionalize a narrative life around a historical account. Yeah, it might give me a different picture of what life was like during a particular time, but if I want just the history I’ll read a historical account. From a novel I want more.
However, I was excited about Hagridden by Samuel Snoek-Brown. After reading Box Cutters, I knew Snoek-Brown would give me that ‘more.’ I wasn’t wrong.
The Civil War is technically ending, but that doesn’t change a whole lot. A young woman struggles along with her mother in law to stay alive in an isolated Louisiana swamp. The crops are gone. Little food and no jobs of any real kind remain. This is where things get good. In one early scene, two Federals fleeing the Confederate army suddenly find themselves skewered by the two women. A Confederate soldier sees this and is pleased:
This is a fine service you done us, ma’am. He nodded at Charles on the ground. I wish they’s more men around to do this sort of thing but you done the South proud as a woman. He leaned and took a grip on her musket barrel and pried the bayonet from Charles’s chest; the fallen man cried out, tears and blood hot in his eyes. The woman tightened her grip on the musketstock and yanked it free from the infantryman.
He laughed. Alright now, ma’am, I ain’t gonna take it from you. It’s just he’s worth more’s a prisoner, much as I hate to say it. To me anyways. Might get me some leave time, bringing him in.
He smiled at the old woman, then he shouted and lurched to the side and dropped his rifle. The girl stepped forth again from the reeds, the pole tight in her fists and the Confederate on the end of it. She pressed on, pushing the pole deeper into his side until he vomited blood over Charles’s chest and then the Confederate fell as well, clutching the pole in his ribs.
You’ve got it; they’re hiding in the reeds and ambushing soldiers, both Federal and Confederate. They kill everyone they possibly can. They butcher anyone who wanders into the swamp and then they loot the bodies for equipment to sell back to the armies. That’s the only way they can get food, other than finding things in the marsh like acorns or crawdads.
Already at a gruesome place, Hagridden then becomes more complicated. A friend of the young woman’s husband who had been conscripted with him returns alone, a deserter. He wants the young woman, but the old woman fears she’ll be unable to survive alone. Worse, the man is fleeing a bat shit insane commanding officer who reimagined himself as an animal in his savagery…and relentlessly pursues those who dared to desert him:
Afterward, the general set up some hospital tents and put them Yankees in to rest up for a march, cause they was all wounded some way or other, and we encamped for the night. But they was these screams all in the night, not nothing we ain’t heard before but they was so much of it that some of us went to have a looksee. And they was Whelan and a couple of boys from his old unit, them rougarous, they playing some foot ball out in the moon light, and when we come up on them we seen they was kicking around a head. I mean one of them Yankee’s heads, cut clean off and rolling out they in the grass.
Go to bed.
I tell it true, and it was just one among many—them boys gone into the tents that night and cut the heads off ever one of them Yankees, stacked over a side like artillery balls.
But, even Whelan is just a savage among savages. The two women? The husband’s friend? It’d be a savagery competition…if there was any way to rank one savagery against another. This is the heart of darkness; this is Hagridden.
The historical time and place comes alive for me vividly, the devastation that is left in at the end of the Civil War, but the darkness that is always hiding below the surface of humanity comes to such a bigger life. It’s really something to see, an enthralling use of a unique environment to explore who people can end up becoming…whether you want to know it or not.
The result is unsettlingly wonderful, something I wouldn’t have imagined and can’t quite manage to refute, though I’d rest easier if I could. Hagridden definitely isn’t something you’d find in your school history book. It’s so much more.