Young Jake Clay managed to get himself into the American Civil War just long enough to have his brains scrambled by a blow to the head at the battle of Cold Harbor. But, as it turned out, he was one of the lucky ones because he fell so close to the Confederate lines that he was almost immediately snatched up and taken prisoner. Others, less fortunate, died miserable deaths in the field when General Grant refused a truce during which the dead and wounded from both armies could be cleared from the battlefield.
It is the first taste of battle for Jake Clay and, as big a shock as battle is, he is about to get an even bigger one when he arrives at the Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia. Naïve young man that he is, Jake soon finds himself giving William Collins all the cash he has in exchange for promised protection that will help ensure his survival despite the horrible living conditions of the prison camp. Collins, a former big city street thug, is the self-appointed leader of what he calls Mosby’s Raiders, criminals who kill and steal from their fellow prisoners at will.
Jake Clay entered Andersonville Prison an innocent boy with high expectations of himself but, by the time he left the camp, he had condoned behavior that shamed him. He might be barely alive, but to stay out of the Andersonville cemetery he had done things, or allowed them to be done on his behalf, that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Little did Jake know that his journey home at the end of the war would offer him a final chance at redemption – an opportunity that would almost kill him in the process.
Death on the River, aimed at the Teen Market, offers a realistic look at Civil War fighting and the horrors of Andersonville Prison without over-focusing on the gory details. Jake Clay is a Union Army volunteer primarily because his older brother has already been lost in battle and Jake wants to honor his brother’s memory. Jake, though, like most soldiers of the period, has little idea what he is getting himself into as his first battle approaches and, like so many others, his first fight will be his last.
This historical coming-of-age novel is so filled with adventure that it might very well lead its young readers to search for more books on the American Civil War, much as I did at that age after I read Red Badge of Courage for the first time. Several decades later, I still find myself drawn to Civil War fiction, new histories of the war, and biographies of those who played a role in it. Here’s hoping that books like Death on the River help spawn a new generation of amateur historians who will move on to Civil War fiction classics such as MacKinlay Kantor’s Andersonville, winner of the 1956 Pulitzer Prize, or Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, another Pulitzer winner (1975).
Rated at: 4.0
(Advance Reading Copy of Death on the River provided by Orca Book Publishers)