Hard Road South. Scott Gates, Author May 5, 2020 Blue Ink Press, LLC. 254 pages.
$14.99 paperback; also available in digital format.
There is something joyful about small presses that work with their authors to produce excellent books. The marriage of an attentive small press and a mesmerizing tale is unquestionably felt in Scott Gates’s debut novel, Hard Road South, and Blue Ink Press of Raleigh, North Carolina. This union has produced a story that will satisfy historical fiction fans and appeal to readers who crave stories that at their core are timeless about human nature and its need for good.
In the late 1860s, when the country was rebuilding on wounds deeper than brother against brother, the gentle 1st Lt. Solomon Dykes, a Connecticut Yankee left cold by his solitary existence in a harsh world, sets his sights on a perceived better life. His goal is to work a fertile plot of land in Virginia’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley, the only part of the South that called to him. Without ties to bind him to his native state, he travels south to find a place where he can learn to farm and eventually start a family.
Meanwhile, Jeb Mosby of Middleburg, Virginia, a farmer by trade who had fought in the war, lives with his congenial wife and his father, who exhibits signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. Jeb is well liked in his community, and he and Solomon meet when Solomon returns Jeb’s father to the farm after having wandered off. As a result, a cautious friendship begins between the two men. Absent from conversation, however, is talk of the war beyond mere mentions, which purposefully avoids contention and conflict. Eventually, Solomon finds his plot of land, which sits next to Jeb’s.
Another acquaintance of Solomon’s is Cassius Freeman, a former slave who lives in a community alongside the welcoming Quakers. Having spent time in the community at Cassius’s invitation, Solomon debates with himself the pull to take up the cause of recently freed slaves and the backbreaking work of turning a failed farm property into a productive venture.
But having crossed the invisible line from North to South, conquerors to conquered, Solomon is thought by some in the town of Middleburg to be the first of many Yankees who will reap the spoils of war and is regarded with distrust. Yet, he has given the townspeople no reason to think he is a carpetbagger ready to profit from their loss. When passions erupt, Solomon is forced to make quick decisions about his future, and the challenges he then faces add depth and meaning to the innocence he carries about his dreams and the words that remain unspoken between men.
Hard Road South is a story of the struggle to resolve and the struggle to repair. It is a quiet story on its surface filled with telling details in the smallest things, with pain and desires, hurt and ambitions simmering beneath. Gates’s use of language in dialogue to place each character is well executed, giving each a distinct disposition and origin. Both Solomon and Jeb are rendered as good, kind men, each having personal memories of war that haunt them, each trying to find their best life, each striving to move past that which changed their and so many other lives. Cassius is the perfect third in the triangle of Reconstruction, because he, too, not only desires to move forward but also finds the opportunity to be an integral part of that movement. The women in the novel are strong and resourceful, representing the resiliency of post-war America.
In all, this is a timely story of the fragility of good hearts and intentions in a time of pronounced political and societal change. Filled with memorable characters of myriad principles and convictions, Hard Road South poses questions we, ourselves, should answer in our time when healing and mending are so necessary.
Thank you to Blue Ink Press, LLC for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.