Synopses & Reviews
Eliza Goode is born into a New Orleans parlor house in the mid 1800s. Sold as a courtesan on her seventeenth birthday, she flees her arranged future at the outbreak of the Civil War. She is passed up through Mississippis plantations from one slave quarters to another until she emerges at the Confederates Camp Corinth and is swept along to the battle of Manassas.
Along the way, she meets Bennett McFerrin and his wife, Rissa, who follows her husband to war. Using guile and her extraordinary beauty, Eliza transforms herself from camp follower prostitute to laundress, nurse, and caregiver to Rissa when Bennett is taken prisoner by Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Fort Donelson in Clarksville, Tennessee. Her final transformation frees her from her past.
Elizas story is more than a tale of war, transcendence, and hardship. It is a story told in modern times by Susan Masters, a novelist in Boston, whose cousin, Hadley, finds Elizas letters in an attic and implores Susan to write Elizas story to answer questions she seeks for her own life. Hadley has a shameful secret of her own—a past, about which she cannot even bring herself to speak.
Set in the second summer of the Iraq war and three years after 9/11, this is not your usual Civil War novel. This story says much about how we became who we are, and who we might have become, had the Civil War not saved us as a nation.
PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY REVIEW
The Occupation of Eliza Goode: A Civil War Novel
Shelley Fraser Mickle. Koehler (www.koehlerbooks.com), $18.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-938467-69-1
In Mickles (The Assigned Visit) extraordinary new novel, a cache of letters from the Civil War era is discovered in a relatives attic, bringing the powerfully narrative, ancestral voice of Eliza Goode to life in her own words, and through the character of Susan Masters, a novelist living in modern day. Raised in Madame Francines high-end New Orleans parlor house, where her mother was a prostitute, beautiful Eliza was promised as a courtesan to an older, wealthy client on her 17th birthday. Days before the deal is sealed, and after the client forced himself on her, Eliza runs away; she survives by her wits and unparalleled beauty, becoming a Confederate camp follower and caregiver to ungrateful, judgmental Rissa McFerrin. The letters are discovered in 2004 by Hadley, who begs her cousin Susan to write Elizas story; Hadley sees parallels between Elizas shame and her own, and hopes to use her ancestors life as a “blueprint.” In the tradition of exquisite Southern storytelling, Mickle graciously blends the richness of history, believable characters and a gifted imagination for an exceptional story. (Nov.)
Reviewed on 10/11/2013 | Details and Permalink
“In this dazzling and beautifully constructed book, Shelley Fraser Mickle takes us into the world of a young Eliza Goode. Despite its complexity, Mickle is in control of her story at every turn. There is so much to recommend this book.”
—David Colburn, historian and author of From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans
“Shelley Fraser Mickle does it again. She writes a work of fiction that feels truer than non-fiction. As a film producer, I say to all who are in love with stories, you must read this book.”
—Dale Eldridge Kaye, CEO Innovation Tri-Valley Leadership Group, partner - Blind Pig Productions
She was one month from seventeen. It must have been about two oclock, March 9, l861 on South Basin Street in New Orleans when she was called into the room where her mother and Preston Cummings sat, to be told: told of the promise—for a price, that is—made at her age of four to be his upon her seventeenth birthday. So it was that Eliza walked into the game room of the Parlor House where every night Madam Francine allowed men to wait, where they played cards until they were invited upstairs by one of the “boarders,” whom Madame Francine affectionately called her “veshyas” and where, if the men did not have one girl in mind, she would choose one for them, bringing first one to the table, then another, as though merely saying hello.
“Yes, here, Eliza. Come here.” Her mothers voice rises, no doubt, bursting with what she thought was her spectacular advance planning: “I have a surprise.”
Wearing a lavender day dress with white piping at the collar, its hem sweeping across the thick mauve rug, Eliza stops where they sit: her mother and Preston Cummings together on a small settee. The windows, heavily draped in purple velvet, let in only a slit of light, so the chandeliers prisms of glass scatter rays of shell-pink across the ceiling like butterflies in flight. And the ceiling, Eliza notes, is already strangely leaking a smoky naranja rojizo of emotion that she cannot yet read.
Tall vases of jasmine lace the air with a honey-sweetness, which is the calling-card of the purple arts, eventually giving rise to a legend that nineteenth century New Orleans prostitutes often wore snips of jasmine as perfume, prompting an opening of, “Want a little jas?” And since all brothels employed piano players to play what, jocularly, they called, “Ass music,” the idioms were bound to slide and merge to take shape on the tongue as jazz.
“Yes, here, Eliza.” Her mother reaches for her hand as Preston Cummings leans over a hat of beaver felt in his lap and takes her other hand, cupping it in his own wide palm. He is now forty-eight years old. There seems never to have been a time when Eliza did not know him. But today his face wears an odd, disturbing expression, nothing like she is used to seeing him taking her for rides in his carriage, taking her to the park, buying her sweets on Esplanade Avenue, year after year.
Today his eyes burn with some strange emotion; but then, over the last five days he has often been highly emotional, ever since Lincoln was inaugurated as President—though most often the emotion has been rage.
He wears an expensive suit of black broadcloth with cuffless trousers over his boots. A satin waistcoat sets off the stiff white of his shirt, and as he pulls her closer, rubbing his thumb across her hand, Eliza catches the scent of sweet, cherry smoking tobacco: his favorite, the one he always uses in his pipe
“Eliza, my dear. Come closer. Yes, right here.” His voice too is different—thick and liquid. But, as usual, there is his swarthy handsomeness: hair and mustache whiskey-black, sharp ancestral French features, long nose, high cheek bones, eyes glittery dark. His right ear folds over at the rim, a defect since birth; and his manicured fingers wrap around a walking stick where, in the handle, is hidden his Arkansas toothpick, the renowned dagger of the time. “Yes, Sweet Eliza, your mother and I have a surprise.”
Oh, how thin her mother looks in an afternoon gown of violeta rouge highlighting her hair. As she squeezes Elizas hand, Eliza notes that her mothers hand feels fish-skin damp and her voice changes to the tone of speaking to a very small child: “Remember, how I always told you of a life where you would never want for a thing? How you would be the center of a great mans life? That you would one day have a wonderful new future? Well, this is your future—Mister Preston, as you have known him, is now Mister Preston Cummings to be someone else quite different again. You see, Darling, I promised years ago that on your seventeenth birthday you would be his. To be his only. And with such patience all these years, he has waited! What a prize he has won! What do you think of our surprise?”
Dear One, what a stupid dummy-girl! Why had I not even guessed this? How had I misread all the signs? Was it only a childs wish to have a father, to be out in the world closed to me? O! I was such a stupid puppet! Why not wail and cry and kick on the floor, screaming no, no, no; I would not have it? Ah! But you see, in that moment I understood what I always knew but now grasped in a way I could not ever have been told. I was a whores child. This was our world—my mothers and mine. This was my intended occupation. Who was I to flail against it? It had fed us. To be one mans only was a prize—to be a courtesan! O! Poor stupid mother! This was what she chose as best for me.
Quietly, I turned and went out of the room, my feet and hands marble. My very breath narrowed to a wheeze. My world had stopped, and I slid off. Until I could find another to climb onto, I would keep my life in its ice bucket.
That night, I grew two hearts. There was the one, open as ever to whoever walked by. The other, darkly labeled, No Entry. This was where I carved out a sacred spot—where no one had a right to look into. I myself guarded it furiously. My Holy of Holies. At least this part of me could never be sold.
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