You all know I’m a fan of Thomas Fenske‘s books, and have been ever since he contacted me to review his first book, The Fever, in 2015. I’ve consistently given them four-star ratings and positive reviews – excellent writing, superior storytelling, consistency in delivery. I know I won’t go wrong in picking up one of his books. I was SO excited to get an advanced reader copy of his newest, The Hag Rider, which is set to come out June 1 (I’ll let you know when it’s available for pre-order!). Friends, I REALLY REALLY REALLY like this one, and you should all read it!
So, I hear Thomas Fenske and think Texas, paranormal activity, a little bit of danger…and they’re all present, against the little-known (at least to me, raised on the East Coast) backdrop of the Civil War in Texas. The Hag Rider is the fictional memoir of a 15 year old Confederate cavalryman in Texas, who joins the fight to serve Texas, despite his youth and discomfort with slavery. He is protected through his ordeal by an old slave woman and witch, Vanita, whose presence follows him thousands of miles through the Confederacy and the Union.
As usual, Fenske manages to touch on important and heavy issues, things that get to the truths of human existence, without getting preachy. Being the Civil War, there’s a lot in The Hag Rider about racism and slavery and Fenske just makes it seem obvious that they’re wrong, just by presenting authentic human interactions. Jack’s relationship with the slave Moze, a father figure to him who cemented much of Jack’s sense of morality, is fundamental to the story and Jack reflects on and uses Moze’s wisdom to guide his actions throughout the book; these are some of my favorite parts.
Another thing I love about this book is the history. A historian by training, Fenske sticks to facts and brings them to life. I had the opportunity to learn about the Civil War in Texas, which I’ve never known much about. But beyond that, the history is brought to life; the writing is realistic and engaging, and I never found myself wondering whether details were historically accurate. Mostly, though, I love that he could bring the sentiments of the times to life, and how he offers plausible motivations. His characters are real people with nuanced views, and I root for Jack the whole time even though he’s a Confederate… I find it very interesting the way Jack justifies fighting for injustice:
“Vanita told me I was going to be fighting to free the slaves. She said she’d seen it because the South wasn’t ever going to win this war, but it was necessary because slavery was never going to end without a fight.” (179)
I can’t forget the witch aspect here. The books is a blend of history and the paranormal. I don’t believe in witches, but I do believe in God, his angels, and the Saints, so the idea of a supernatural being protecting Jack so he can fulfill his part in a fight for justice, as roundabout as it seems, is something I just get. It makes sense to me.
This book is the whole package: entertainment, history, existential truths. With a witch!