Monday, July 1, 2019

"Soldier's Heart" by Michele McKnight Baker

Webster Henderson and Junior Thompson are two young boys growing up as next-door neighbors and best friends in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, shortly before and during the Civil War. Webster is white; Junior is black. Webster comes from a prosperous family; Junior’s father has always been free, but his mother grew up in slavery, and they are steadily working their way into the middle class. The Civil War begins, and everything for these two boys and their families will change.

The story begins at a church service shortly after the war has ended. Webster’s uncle, grievously wounded during the war, walks into the church and exposes his wound. He has also donned a Confederate uniform. Churchgoers don’t know which act is worse – the exposure of the wound or the uniform. 

It would be superficially easy to describe Soldier’s Heart by Michele McKnight Baker as a coming-of-age story. It is that, but it’s also much more: the story of two families who are more intertwined than they know, who experience the challenges, deprivations, and destruction of war, and who have to find ways to come to terms with what they learn and what they experience. Told through both current narrative and flashbacks, the story is a journey through American history – very personal American history.

Carlisle as the setting is important as a critical factor in the story. It was briefly occupied and shelled by Confederate forces during the invasion of the North that ended at Gettysburg. What the novel describes as “soldier’s heart” is what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Michele McKnight Baker
Baker is the author of a previously published novel, Sandpaper Sisters. She received a Ph.D. degree in anthropology research and organizational studies, is a former journalist, and leads her own marketing and strategic planning company. She is also the director of Advancement for the Salvation Army in York, Pennsylvania. 

Soldier’s Heart is a moving coming-of-age story, a love story, a love-unrequired story, a story of war, and a story of two families coming to understand and love each other. 

Top illustration: A drawing of the shelling of Carlisle by the Confederate army just prior to the Battle of Gettysburg.

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