This is a novel about a bridge burning, a trial, and a hanging. But it is also situated in Civil War Tennessee, which means that none of those events will occur according to any expectations of normal. The characters —from the Unionist Harrison Self to the dramatic Parson Brownlow—are all historical enough. But Susan Lohafer has given them a special edge, as they seek to make sense of a world that is breaking into pieces around them, where friends are foes and one wrong glance may be worth your life. It is a fast book, it is an unnerving book, it is a polished, shining book—all right then, it is a great book.
Allen C. Guelzo
Author, Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction and Gettysburg: The Last Invasion
Susan Lohafer's historical novel about the notorious bridge burning incident of 1861 in East Tennessee is an engaging and poignantly written story about the disruptive effects of war on a close-knit community. Scholarly accounts depict the episode as a relatively minor one in the larger panorama of the Civil War. Lohafer, however, expounds the event's importance, presenting the bridge burnings as a pivotal moment for those directly involved, when the comforting routine of traditional farm life was abruptly and cruelly turned upside down. She centers her narrative on the real life family of Harrison Self, a proud, pro-Union farmer who was implicated by Confederate authorities in the bridge burnings. In doing so, Lohafer crafts an eminently plausible tale of angst and heartbreak. Self, along with a host of other colorfully drawn characters, discover that personal decisions made under wartime duress bring unintended consequences, which in turn call into question long cherished values. Harrison Self personifies this unfolding chaos as he loses control over his farm, his family, his very life. Readers will enjoy how Lohafer writes with an empathy that reveals both her understanding of the period and her respect for human complexity. Moreover, her novel shows that even seemingly insignificant events and people are every bit as integral to the Civil War saga as such great battles as Gettysburg or such great leaders as Lincoln. The Reluctant Patriot offers rich, literary insight into the minds of those Civil War era Americans whose lives are otherwise left out of the pages of academic history.
Ben H. Severance
Professor of History, Auburn University at Montgomery
An exquisitely written love letter to America. Based on a true story, Lohafer gives us a moving account of the life of Harrison Self, a Tennessee farmer who, in an effort to save his child's life, is unwittingly dragged into the American Civil War. This is the amazing story of a reluctant patriot in desperate times as he endures the horrors of prison life, and, in one gruesome episode, the brutal death by hanging of an innocent boy. Set during the Civil War in East Tennessee this story is about the countless sacrifices made by ordinary people attempting to create a fairer society. In a novel full of compassion and humanity, we witness the occasion when black people, in fear of their lives, arrive to cast their votes for the first time, and the extraordinary show of solidarity from their white compatriots who act as human shields for their fellow men as they escort them safely to the polling station. In elegant and clear-sighted prose that brilliantly captures the speech of its time, this is a novel that is epic in its scope and local in its experience, making it a story of universal proportion. Accompanied by endnotes that expertly explain background and context, this is a book everyone should read, not only for its outstanding portrayal of life during America's Civil War, but to better understand the complex issue of race in America today. More than anything, it is an essential reminder of something that is often not talked about- how decent Americans have always struggled to do the right thing and often at great personal cost.