Monday, March 7, 1864
The war has been going on far longer than anyone thought, so long that I fear we have become accustomed to it. We have grown accustomed to having no men around, accustomed to things we had taken for granted — coffee, ink, flour for baking — all becoming precious, and accustomed to all the gaiety having vanished from our lives. We seem to have lost all hope, as if this is the way it will be forever.
(from When Will This Cruel War Be Over? The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, page 40)
Part of the Dear America historical fiction diary series for young readers, When Will This Cruel War Be Over? The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson is set in Gordonsville, Virginia, in 1864 toward the end of the American Civil War. Barry Denenberg gets into the head of a fictional 14-year-old girl who keeps a diary over the course of one year — a year filled with war, loss, and hardship, probably the toughest year Emma Simpson (and girls like her) ever faced.
The diary starts off with the loss of Emma’s brother, Cole, in the war. Her brother’s death hits her and her mother hard, especially as it occurred just before Christmas. With her father off fighting as a colonel in the Confederate Army, nothing is the same for the Simpson family, and Emma can’t help but remember how just one year before, she and her extended family had a festive Christmas. Cole’s death is the beginning of the end of life as Emma knew it. In the coming months, she will meet a young man who captures her heart then rushes off to fight, she will lose more family members to illness, and the war will arrive on her doorstep as the Yankees take over her home and force her and her family to a few rooms on the third floor.
Meanwhile, the slaves on other farms are rebelling, sometimes violently, sometimes just running off. Readers will have to understand where Emma is coming from when she describes how her family’s slaves are loyal and content and not likely to run off. It is not likely that her family’s slaves are content, and it is not likely that they appreciated her father’s “firm guiding hand,” but Emma is the daughter of a slave owner and has grown up thinking slavery is normal and that blacks are simply inferior to whites. The letters from her father insist that the Abolitionists must be beaten, but Emma’s letters from her boyfriend, Tally, and the things she has seen with her own eyes show her how war isn’t always black and white.
I find it impossible to imagine them lying cold upon some battlefield with no one to care for them. I cannot bring myself to believe — as others seem to — that somehow it would be worth it. Is anything worth dying for? Is this awful waste — this painful sacrifice — justified in God’s eyes? (page 129)
One could call The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson a homefront novel of sorts. While the men are off fighting, Emma and her cousin, Rachel, are pondering hair styles, clothes, and marriage. But those conversations come to an end when Emma confronts death, hunger, cold, and Yankee soldiers. The war actually comes to her doorstep, though what she experiences is nowhere near as horrible as what the men experienced on the battlefield. It really drives home the point that war is a hardship for everyone, though at different degrees.
The Girl (age 11) read this book first, then told me I had to read it, too. She says she thought it was interesting for the most part, but some parts dragged, and she didn’t think it was necessary for Emma to call her family Brother Cole, Cousin Rachel, and Baby Elizabeth over and over. She thought that was annoying. I see her points, but the book was so short that these things didn’t bother me as much.
The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson is a good book for parents and children to read together about the Civil War. It definitely raises some talking points about war and slavery, how war dramatically changes every day life, how it forced children to grow up early, and how it pushed people to their limits. The novel is not a cheerful one, and at times, Emma seems to lose all hope and wonders if things will be this bad forever. But that feeling of desolation, helplessness, and pain is what makes it authentic.
© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.