Title: How Can a Man Die Better
Author: Roy V. Gaston
Genre: Historical Fiction / Mystery Thriller
How Can a Man Die Better follows the journey of Cage Carew, who joins the 52nd Ohio Infantry Regiment, to get revenge on slave catcher Francois Devol after Devol is suspected for the murder of two women. Told against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the narrative weaves Cage’s story into the tales of those who fight alongside him.
Gaston’s novel would hold great appeal to readers of Civil War historical fiction. The author has thoroughly researched the time period, including such details as the drought of 1862 in Kentucky as the Yankee soldiers traverse the harsh landscape. Another interesting example of such detail is the protagonist recalling hearing of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, which was the Union’s first officially sanctioned regiment of escapee slaves and free men of color from New Orleans. Gaston doesn’t shy away from realistically portraying the horrors of war, such as how many men died from disease on the battlefield. Moments when Yankee and Rebel soldiers come together to drink, talk, and play cards are a reminder that even amidst the tragedy of war, what we share can bring peace and unity.
This story is a cornucopia of description. The characters feel alive, many of whom are historical figures. The loathing the reader feels for Francois Devol and his awful treatment of slaves is palpable. Not only does he mistreat them, he commits assault and murder without so much as a pang of regret. One wishes for this antagonist to get his comeuppance, and the result of this makes for satisfying reading.
Cage Carew, although flawed, is a likeable guy who looks out for his friends and whose pain the reader feels when someone he loves is taken from him. The personal aspect of this story draws the reader in. War is an epic event. One man’s reasons for joining the Army brings the message home that every person has his or her own reasons for fighting.
Besides the protagonist and the antagonist, several characters are gems. A woman named Seraphine, who doesn’t appear until the end, knows what she wants and won’t let anyone stand in her way. Her dialogue is fun and is one example of how well the author crafts witty, humorous, and cutting dialogue for the characters, no matter how small their role.
Gaston’s handle of language delivers, from gorgeous descriptions of a swamp to the unsavory brothels of Nashville. Although descriptive paragraphs run lengthy at times, much of the detail is of the sort that readers of historical fiction crave. The first 50 pages of the book are backstory on Devol and Lyman Dunnock, who is a commanding officer of Carew’s regiment. The point of view switches from third to first person after this long introduction, which is confusing at first. The backstory is necessary for the rest of the novel and enriches it, although readers who are looking to read specifically about the Civil War period may be put off by this.
How Can a Man Die Better brilliantly threads together two stories: one man’s need for revenge and the grander scale of the Civil War. The reader’s lens pulls us from the macroscopic to the microscopic, bringing in the personal detail of one man’s struggles during a time when the United States was divided. Gaston’s novel is a stark, riveting reminder that even during the worst of times, values such as friendship, loyalty, and tenacity hold humanity together.
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