REVIEW: When the Jessamine Grows by Donna Everhart

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For readers of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier and Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles, an evocative, morally complex novel set in rural 19th century North Carolina, as one woman fights to keep her family united, her farm running, and her convictions whole during the most devastating and divisive period in American history.

Talk of impending war is a steady drumbeat throughout North Carolina, though Joetta McBride pays it little heed. She and her husband, Ennis, have built a modest but happy life for themselves, raising two sons, fifteen-year-old Henry, and eleven-year-old Robert, on their small subsistence farm. They do not support the Confederacy’s position on slavery, but Joetta considers her family to be neutral, believing this is simply not their fight.

Her opinion is not favored by many in their community, including Joetta’s own father-in-law, Rudean. A staunch Confederate supporter, he fills his grandsons’ heads with stories about the glory of battle and the Southern cause until one night Henry runs off to join the war. At Joetta’s frantic insistence, Ennis leaves to find their son and bring him home.

But soon weeks pass with no word from father or son and Joetta is battered by the strain of running a farm with so little help. As the country becomes further entangled in the ramifications of war, Joetta finds herself increasingly at odds with those around her – until one act of kindness brings her family to the edge of even greater disaster.

Though shunned and struggling to survive, Joetta remains committed to her principles, and to her belief that her family will survive. But the greatest tests are still to come – for a fractured nation, for Joetta, and for those she loves . . .

CW – description/discussion of miscarriage, derogatory description of enslaved people

Dear Ms. Everhart,

This was not an easy book to read. Civil Wars divide families, friends, and neighbors. Even those who want to stay apart will usually get drawn in eventually as do the McBrides. But healthy servings of guilt and pain also haunt Joetta as her world crashes around her.

The blurb doesn’t truly reveal the unpopular stance Joetta takes after rumors of coming war finally reach their small town in Nash County, North Carolina. After her father-in-law fills her restless older son’s head with visions of glory on a battlefield of a war that will soon be won, Henry leaves in the night. Ten days later, after the boy should have reached Raleigh and been turned away due to his age, Joetta guilts her husband into going after him only for Ennis to now be caught up in it as well. Refusing to let her neighbors believe that her menfolk have joined the Glorious Cause, Joetta begins to earn stares and whispers. After she allows NC Union troops to water their horses at her farm, things begin to get ugly with, at times, her father-in-law leading the charge.

Joetta staunchly refuses to change her mind and her neutrality although, after a visit from troublemakers ruins their corn and sorghum crops, she tempers her public outspokenness and tries to fade into the background. Then devastating news reaches her before someone new arrives to give her hope only for this to be followed by worse troubles. Can the McBrides who are left hang on in the face of angry resentments and desperate deserters?

There were times I cheered Joetta and her determination to hold onto her convictions. The easy way was there all the time but even biting her tongue was hard for Joetta in the face of needling comments designed to catch her out. She also had to deal with her younger twelve year old son who has lost the two men most important in his life and who now must help his mother wrest a living from the farm. Feeling her son slip away into resentment and pain at his own losses hurts Joetta even more. Yet there were also times when I yelled through my ereader at Joetta to just play along, read the room, and try to keep from upsetting those who could, and did, arrive with harmful intentions.

Joetta stubbornly sticks to her guns and there was one point where she ruminated on the fact that someone in her life called her pigheaded. Yep, that’s a good description. I kept feeling that she could have handled things better and still held onto her beliefs while also keeping her son and crippled father-in-law a bit safer. The middle of the book meanders around a bit with a lot of repetition of how the McBrides survive while the ending drags a little. Could they have managed through a harsh winter and two summers as they did? Possibly but it’s a stretch.

I think the two books listed above the blurb are accurate as far as which readers might enjoy this book. It is a hard look at a hard time. Though the McBrides and most of their neighbors don’t own enslaved people, there are some large plantations with owners who do. Nasty reasons for people to support the Confederate cause are mentioned. Sadly some of the attitudes are not ones that have died away in the century and a half and crop up in daily news now. Holding onto the courage of your convictions at any time when those convictions run counter to the prevailing viewpoints is challenging. There is much to admire about Joetta but watching her fight against the current leads to a darker story. B-

~Jayne

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Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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