25th Oct 2012
A Soldier’s Secret by Marissa Moss
Of the 400-plus women to enrol in the American Civil War, Sarah Emma Edmonds is the only one to have had her achievements recognised by acts of Congress as an honourably discharged solider, and the only woman allowed to join the Grand Army of the Republic association for Civil War veterans.
This is because whilst Sarah Emma Edmonds was serving her country, she was a man called Frank Thompson.
This slightly fictionalised account of Frank’s life as a soldier, nurse and spy for the Union in the first few years of the war is written by Marissa Moss for a young adult audience, but will prove absolutely fascinating to readers of all ages.
It is a beautiful book full of wonderful facts about the war, illustrated with photographs from the period. Anyone remotely interested in American history will love this book, as will any teenager with a sense of adventure.
Brutally treated by her father, Sarah Emma runs away from home aged fifteen to escape an arranged marriage and a life of violence and terror.
Vowing to never be trapped in a woman’s role of marriage and motherhood, unable to have any power or personal autonomy, Sarah Emma steals her brother’s clothes and turns herself into a boy – Frank.
The term used in the book is ‘passing’, and it is never really made clear if Frank actually self-identifies as a man, or has become one out of a sense of desperation and unhappiness with the role offered to him as a woman.
The author treads a very thin line: although Frank is depicted as very conflicted in how he feels and acts, especially towards his fellow soldiers who, for the most part he considers brothers, his version of what a ‘man’ is is a stereotype of a grunting, spitting brute that is just as limiting as a woman’s role.
This book could provoke some awkward yet necessary conversations about gender roles , and I’d recommend that anyone buying it for their teens give it a read-through first to prepare.
It is, all in all, a very well-written, speedy read – if about 100 pages too long. Clearly drawing heavily on source materials, parts of Frank’s diary and letters from soldiers are quoted throughout, along with speeches made by the generals at the time.
Any school library should definitely invest in copies of this book, but be aware: tt doesn’t shy of describing the horrors of war, and Frank’s experiences of losing friends and bloody battle could be quite upsetting, particularly for younger readers.
If you love history, a good story, and enjoy learning those little details (like where the term ‘sideburns’ came from), then you’ll enjoy this.
Recommended for: History buffs and those wanting to think more about gender and what it meant historically.
Other recommended reading: My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira tells the story of the Civil War from the Union point of view. Or try Sarah Emma Edmonds’ biography, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.