Picks and Pans Review: Jacob's Ladder

updated 05/04/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Donald McCaig

Book of the Week

The passions that swirl around slavery and secession make the Confederacy nearly irresistible to an ambitious novelist. Think Gone with the Wind; think Cold Mountain.

Bestselling author Donald McCaig (Nop's Trials) opens this engaging, historically grounded novel in 1857 on a prosperous plantation in a remote Virginia valley. The master's son falls in love with a pert, light-skinned slave. But with the rumble of war building in the background, they and much of the plantation's population are scattered. For the next eight years they crisscross their battle-scarred state, fighting the war, fleeing it or coping with its devastation. McCaig aims for panorama. He shows us Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart playing charades in a Richmond mansion and President Lincoln mobbed by "colored troops" who greet him as Master Abraham. From the opening shots at Bull Run in 1861 to the end of the Petersburg campaign in 1865, McCaig charts with bull's-eye precision the unraveling fortunes of a proud but battered rebel army. He's best at battlefield mayhem, but quieter moments (such as cradling wheat in an upland field or late-night poker at an officers' gambling den) round out the grand, lifelike tableau.

If historical fact threatens to overwhelm plot and character gets buried under a heap of authentic period detail, it's a small price to pay for aiming the literary cannons so high. (Norton, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Grand Civil War epic; all that are missing are Rhett and Scarlett

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