Summary from Goodreads:
Rosetta doesn't want her new husband Jeremiah to enlist, but he joins up, hoping to make enough money that they'll be able to afford their own farm someday. Though she's always worked by her father’s side as the son he never had, now that Rosetta is a wife she's told her place is inside with the other women. But Rosetta decides her true place is with Jeremiah, no matter what that means, and to be with him she cuts off her hair, hems an old pair of his pants, and signs up as a Union soldier.
Rosetta drills with the men, prepares herself for battle, and faces the tension as her husband comes to grips with having a fighting wife. Fearing discovery of her secret, Rosetta’s strong will clashes with Jeremiah’s as their marriage is tested by war. Inspired by over two hundred and fifty documented accounts of the women who fought in the Civil War while disguised as men, I Shall Be Near To You is the intimate story, in Rosetta’s powerful and gorgeous voice, of the drama of marriage, one woman’s amazing exploits, and the tender love story that can unfold when two partners face life’s challenges side by side.
The last thing I expected to experience while reading this book was boredom, but there you have it. I found I Shall Be Near To You to be very dull. It’s a book about a young woman who runs away to join the Union army to fight alongside her husband, which sounds exciting. But actually, it wasn’t?
The major problem with the novel, I feel, is that it’s too simplistic and doesn’t go deep enough. The characters are all promising, but McCabe doesn’t differentiate between them enough or develop their personalities enough for me to feel that they’re dimensional individuals. I often couldn’t keep straight which soldier was which, simply because the author had handed readers a list of names with a few “tags” but no characters of true substance.
Likewise, I found that the narrator, Rosetta as lacking in depth and dimension. I Shall Be Near To You is narrated in the first-person, but I didn’t get much of a sense of who she was. Aside from the presence of a slight dialect in Rosetta’s narration, this book didn’t stand out much in terms of voice or distinct narrative, either. Overall, in terms of characters, which I believe are the most important part of a novel, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of flatness and disinterest throughout.
And all this is disappointing, of course, because McCabe has clearly researched her subject and has an exciting story to tell. There are hundreds of extant letters detailing the experiences of women who fought in the American Civil War, and certainly many readers will be attracted to this book because of the novelty of its subject matter. I don’t believe the author is a poor writer or that she failed in her research (which is of utmost importance in the genre). I simply believe that she failed to take her raw material and with it craft an exciting story.
For instance, the battle scenes, when Rosetta and her husband are surrounded by death and seem to be overcome with the futility of war? Those should have been emotionally fraught and riveting. Instead they were anything but. I think part of this has to do with the first-person narration that doesn’t do much to but events into context. Rosetta informs readers that she’s at Antietam, but considering how poor history education in public schools is, it’s not likely that the average reader will be able to read the name and immediately place the characters. I know I didn’t, and I’m more well-read and well-informed than many. Rosetta is one person amid a great sea of carnage, and while one might think it would serve to give a human face to a massive war, instead I Shall Be Near To You fails to deliver the import of the events its protagonist is witnessing. The book reads like a litany of death, death, and more death, but because of its stagnancy, doesn’t move the reader. The ending should have been heartbreaking, but was instead dramatically underwhelming.
And, again, as exciting as the storyline should have been, it was almost hopelessly predictable. Everything you’d expect to happen in a book about a girl running away to join the army happens. View Spoiler »The other men resent her, she gets found out by another woman who promises not to tell, a fellow soldier develops homosexual feelings for her, she excels in “women’s work” such as tending the sick and cooking, she gets pregnant by her husband, she reveals herself to a truly stunned commanding officer, etc. « Hide Spoiler I don’t want to be unfair, but it really seems to me that McCabe had such a great premise but didn’t do enough with it.
The long and short of my sentiments about I Shall Be Near To You: underwhelming and unmemorable. I really felt like this book could have been something, but it lacked…pizzazz? Bookish magic? It felt far to simple and easy and expected, even though it’s about a woman who defied conventions and laws to fight in a man’s war. This book could have been more, tried to be more, but in the end didn’t accomplish much.