I Shall Be Near to You
In this riveting novel based on true events, a young woman named Rosetta Wakefield has just become a bride. She knows that her husband, Jeremiah, has already enlisted in the Union Army and will be gone soon. The plan is for Rosetta to remain in the tiny cabin on her in-laws' property while Jeremiah earns enough money from his stint in the army to enable the young newlyweds to purchase a farm and a new life in the West. Still, Rosetta has never done the expected, preferring to labor side by side with her father on his farm rather than do the womanly chores her mother wishes to teach her.
"I SHALL BE NEAR TO YOU is a powerful, engrossing and heartrending story of enduring love and the horrors of war, and is put forth in a wonderfully understated fashion. Every word rings true."
Soon after Jeremiah heads off to his post, Rosetta knows she can no longer stay away from him. She chops off her long braid and alters one of Jeremiah's outfits to fit her small frame. Disguised now as a young man, she packs a burlap bag with a map, a letter from Jeremiah, flannel rags for her "woman's time," socks, a blanket, and a few things to eat. Then she heads out on foot to the army camp, where she announces that she wishes to enlist. The entire time that Rosetta, now calling herself "Ross Stone," talks to Captain Chalmers about joining up (she claims that her "cousin," Jeremiah Wakefield, is in his platoon), she is also worrying about what Jeremiah will say when he sees her. Captain Chalmers poses a few questions to Rosetta about her health and asks to watch her run before welcoming "Private Stone" to Company H of the Ninety-seventh Volunteers.
Rosetta, as Ross, immediately begins drilling with the Regiment. She notices Jeremiah, but he doesn't appear to notice her. However, when the sergeant asks if there's space in anyone's tent, Jeremiah steps forward, saying he is related to the new recruit and can take him into his tent. Of course, Jeremiah insists Rosetta go home immediately, but she is stubborn: "I ain't going back there, not without you," she tells her husband. Finally, they agree (or, at least, Jeremiah states and Rosetta doesn't outright contradict him) that she will stay until their regiment begins fighting.
Needless to say, a female disguised as a male soldier has plenty of challenges beyond the monotony of camp life as the regiment waits --- and then waits some more --- to get their orders. Rosetta is used to working on the farm; it is hard for her to sit around in between drills and inspections. She arises very early so she can have privacy in the woods in order to take care of necessities. She also has issues related to the early days of a new marriage, such as misunderstandings, to attempt to deal with under these difficult conditions. Jeremiah's friends from home know who she is, which both eases and complicates this new life.
The monotony is broken when the captain hands out muskets. Rosetta is not used to handling firearms but is determined to become as good a soldier as any of the men. That grit carries her forward, day by day, through her nightmarish tending of soldiers in the hospital, past disapproving letters from her family, beyond multiple complications, and toward the inevitable battlefield.
I SHALL BE NEAR TO YOU is a powerful, engrossing and heartrending story of enduring love and the horrors of war, and is put forth in a wonderfully understated fashion. Every word rings true. As a reader, I felt like I was right there with Rosetta, rooting for her as she met each trial with admirable yet purely believable fortitude. I expect to see this excellent book on many "Best Of" lists, including my own.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 31, 2014