A historical novel about an Appalachian community violently divided between North and South, and a young man caught in the middle of it all, while the earliest battles of the American Civil War are waged around them. 1979.
Back in September, I moved across the country to a small town in West Virginia’s Appalachia region. My greatest joy in moving to an entirely new place and working in a local history museum is the chance to learn all kinds of new stories. What can I say; I’m a story junkie. (And how many of us couldn’t say the same??)
As I’ve delved into the history of this small community in the middle of nowhere, I’ve been blown away by how much history there truly is. And I love being able to share that with other non-local visitors. Besides, I basically get to spend my days telling stories, and how could that not be fun!
I’m also constantly trying to improve the stories I tell. My goal is to have every visitor leave with a good story they can take home with them. Admittedly, it was this story-mining endeavor that motivated me to open The Middle Ground–however, it was the story itself, and the quality of the historical fiction, that made me open it every chance that I got thereafter.
The Middle Ground is titled after a mountainous, forested area just west of the Allegheny Mountains in present-day West Virginia. During the early days of the Civil War, when states and citizens alike were choosing sides between Union and Confederacy, Virginia was the heart of secessionist sympathies…with the general exception of the area that became West Virginia.
People west of the dividing Allegheny Mountains had little in common with their neighbors to the east. They’d never owned slaves; they had no plantations, just homesteads that they carved out of the wilderness with their own hands. When it came to choosing sides, North or South, allegiance was strongly divided. (Even today, this region is hard to classify. Is is North, South, Midwest, Appalachia? It is any of these, yet none of these exclusively.)
The area, moreover, contained several important trade routes, and the Union wanted to protect these. It was for this reason, among others, that this area—though few are aware of the fact—saw the earliest land action of the Civil War.
The Middle Ground is a wonderful portrayal of this fascinating, obscure, and inevitably violent history. It begins with Kane Tyler, our main character, who’s been gone from home these past two weeks. In that time, he’s traveled the 100 miles to and from Staunton, the nearest big city, where he spent all of his savings on goods and materials to establish his own household. There’s a neighbor girl he’s interested in marrying, but first he needs to prove that he’s worth accepting.
These two weeks have been pivotal in other ways. The first skirmishes in the region have proved bloody, and everyone is feeling the pressure to take sides. Worse, though, are the raiding parties that have begun terrorizing the neighborhood.
One party wears Union uniforms but has no military connection; they’ll beat you up good and steal whatever they like from you. Another party, even more deadly, targets individuals who have allegedly been expressing Union sympathies. They show up at these individuals’ homes, forcibly haul them outside, tie them to a tree, and murder them by firing squad.
Kane, who’s been gone, has missed these recent developments. Quickly, though, they catch up with him. He’s attacked by the Union-sympathizing raiders, and his wagon, team, and expensive load of new goods is stolen. He’s forced to stumble the rest of the way home, muddy, bleeding, and barely conscious.
Once he gets there, he finds the situation no better. He has a rival for the girl he’s wanting to marry, and this rival has been spreading the nastiest rumor of all: he alleges that Kane, notably absent these past two weeks, has actually been riding with the murdering raiders.
Just as they are split on the issue of secession, community members quickly question their loyalty to Kane. Even Kane’s sweetheart, Claire, turns against him:
“I hear you think I’m running with the Crutchfield mob,” Kane said, his voice heavy with bitterness. “How could you be so—so faithless?”
Claire sucked in a short breath and drew back as if he had struck her, and he knew that he had blundered in his attempt to reach her. “Not just me—everyone thinks so!” she replied sharply. “You’ve been gone for two weeks and all the–the murders have been committed during that time. I’ve tried to believe you were innocent, but the evidence—your injury—”
“Injury, hell!” Kane interposed sharply, feeling his anger rise at her words. “You didn’t even bother to hear my side of the story before making up your mind or—or care whether I lived or died. You don’t love me, and you never have or you would know that I could not fall so—so low!”
While the raids continue and Kane fails to definitively clear his name, his situation goes from frustrating to deadly. His only means of escape is by joining the army. Fortunately, Lee and his troops have set up camp not far away.
At this point in the novel, I worried that it would become very military- and combat-oriented, but it doesn’t. Kane is a scout, so he sees little combat firsthand. Moreover, the depiction of military life is interrupted by other characters and their non-military storylines. In all, the novel maintains a very adept balance.
I’d recommend The Middle Ground wholeheartedly to anyone, but especially to anyone who enjoys Civil War-era historical fiction, wilderness adventure, or those with an interest in Appalachian culture and history. In many ways, The Middle Ground reminds me of the works of Janice Holt Giles, with her novels featuring Kentucky’s Appalachia and its down-to-earth, interconnected inhabitants.
And, in case you’re wondering, this is where I work!