Fuse #8

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Review of the Day: My Last Skirt

Once you’ve read enough children’s books where a girl disguises herself as a boy you begin to understand the standard tropes of the genre. The moment when they have to bind their newly growing breasts. The moment when they have to deal with their period. Usually these stories are fantastical in some respect. Almost never are they based on real life historical figures, and even more rarely are they fictionalized real-life stories. But there are exceptions to every rule and “My Last Skirt” is certainly one of these. Taking the rather fantastic story of real-life Civil War soldier and transvestite Albert Cashier nee Jennie Hodgers, the story follows Jennie from Irish sheepherder, New York cashier, soldier, old man, and, finally, old woman. And though I may have some quibbles with how author Lynda Durrant chose to present some of her information, there’s no denying the inherent interest in Cashier’s tale.

It just made good plain sense to Jennie from the start. Boys make more money than girls and Jennie has a boyish face. Put a pair of pants on her and she makes a more than convincing boy. This works well enough when she’s tending sheep in her native Ireland, but it’s even more effective when she and her brother Tom cross the Atlantic sea to start a new life in New York. A tiff between the two leads to Jennie, now known as Albert, to lead a life of her own. Soon enough she joins up with the 95th Illinois Infantry to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Told through Albert’s battles and final late-in-life discovery of her sex, Durrant tracks the life of a women who decided to live her life the way she always wanted to.

Durrant often thinks of things that some wouldn’t when writing a book of this sort. While in the army, for example, Jennie stops having her period because of the lack of nutrition and the extreme physical activity. Left unexplained is how Jennie goes about going to the bathroom while in the army. Especially while on the march. That must’ve took some doing, but it’s left unexplained. Still, there’s quite a nice Afterword and good Bibliography at the end of the novel. This is a title that has been well researched. The sheer number of facts that would threaten to overwhelm the unprepared author are organized and adeptly fictionalized by Durrant.

There were some odd gaps here and there. Oddly, the book leaves unexplained the impetus of poor Southern whites to fight in the war. Over and over again Jennie wonders why the Southerners fight. The only answer she ever receives is a somewhat vague reference to the fact that the Northerners came down so they had to be fought. Readers with any Southern pride will probably chafe at how they’re presented in this book time and time again. Between Arthur justifying the wanton pillage of the South, feeding the victims of the Vicksburg siege and leaving before they can “thank” them, the book never shows the alternate point of view. Kids reading it may end up just as baffled by the end as Jennie herself. There was also the adoption of some slave runaways who join with the infantry. One of them, a fellow by the name of Euripedes, is promoted, in the course of the tale, to Sergeant. Did this happen? Slaves would join with the Union army and get promoted over the white soldiers? When I asked this question of some librarians who thoroughly enjoyed this book, they said that Euripedes didn't receive his promotion until after his death. Yet the book clearly states during the fighting that Euripedes is currently a Sergeant. Confusing.

Another thing I couldn’t quite figure out was why Jennie was so determined to remain disguised as a boy her entire life. Durrant gives us two possible answers: Jennie wasn’t a fan of the restrictive nature of female clothing and she felt that as a boy she could make more money. I’m willing to believe all of that, of course, but once Jennie grows old and is living a truly sad life as a safety-obsessed old man, the reader is left baffled. Why do that? This Jennie is obsessed with buying lock after lock with which to bolt her door at home. She’s miserable, trying to outsmart the local boys and their dogs. Why go through with it? Why not just come out as a woman or move to another city as a woman? There’s some scant hint that maybe Jennie/Albert still enjoys the work she’s able to do once in a while, but it doesn’t seem to be a love strong enough to justify her crummy life. And if it’s because it’s what Jennie’s used to, why the overwhelming fear she continually feels this late in her life?

In this story Jennie falls in love with a fellow soldier in the field. It was a love I personally questioned the necessity of. As Durrant notes in her Afterword, the romantic attachment between these two is fictionalized. Why, then, include it? Though the real Albert Cashier appears to developed an attachment to neither men nor women, putting the character through the requisite romantic paces felt a little forced. There’s certainly enough emotional intensity inherent in the Civil War alone. No need to add in a romance that is presented as a very adult and sophisticated love.

Ah well. It’s an interesting story and one done, you can tell, with a great deal of affection for the real Arthur Cashier/Jennie Hodgers. I do not think this is as strong an effort as it could have been, and perhaps some judicious editing was in order. Still, for those searching for an alternate look at soldiers in the Civil War with an interesting twist, “My Last Skirt” may certainly be a title to consider.

Notes On the Cover: Cleverly done. The book slakes our thirst for pictures of the real Albert Cashier (the book doesn't show any, unfortunately) with the smart juxtaposition of a waist-high shot of Albert and photograph of a woman in a skirt filling out the image. Better still, the cover artist doesn’t rely on just sepia-toning the whole kerschmozzle. Add in the patchworked fabric behind the photo and the cover is both interesting and something a historical fiction-minded child might actually want to pick up. Well done there.

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