More than one hundred fifty years after the start of the Civil War, we continue to remember a war that tore apart a country, states and families. However, author Susan Meissner explores the softer sides of blue and gray in A Sound Among the Trees (WaterBrook Press), a part-contemporary, part-historical novel about an antebellum house with a tragic Civil War history, and a line of women stuck in patterns of regret.
Q: A Sound Among the Trees is a part-contemporary, part historical novel set in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Where did the idea for this story come from?
For a long time now I’ve wanted to build a story around a house that was so integral to the plot that it came across as one of the characters. We are wired to feel incredibly devoted to the idea of home. We want everyone home for the holidays and we get homesick when we’re away from it too long and when we’re cold and wet and lonely and sad, we just want to be home. Part of it is we love the people who are at home, but the other part is our houses are like protective havens and we trust them, if you will, to care for us. I wanted to explore the idea that if a house could understand how we felt about it, what would happen if that house could not do what it was supposed to do. How would it feel if it couldn’t keep us safe?
Q: Last year was the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War—what made you interested in that time period?
I’ve been deeply moved whenever I’ve read anything on the Civil War. Anytime there are countrymen – family, friends, loved ones – fighting each other to the death, the conflict takes on an heightened tragic tone and that is the pull of any good story – high emotional stakes. I’m not a fan of war, but I am drawn to any backdrop of human drama where courage and sacrifice go hand-in-hand. I’ve watched Ken Burns’ The Civil War on PBS several times over the course of my adult life; it moves me every time I see it.
Q: Did you find anything surprising in your research?
I found it incredibly interesting, in a sad way, that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, believed he had heaven on his side. He thought he was a rebel with a noble cause, just like George Washington had been, and he had a portrait of Washington above his desk at the Confederate capitol in Richmond. Davis truly believed the Confederacy had the same worthy goal as the American colonists did when they rebelled against Britain. It amazed me that he truly believed that the right to own slaves—arguably one of the reasons the States when to war—was a righteous cause.
Q: You focus mainly on the lives of the families behind the scenes of the battles. What role did women play in the Civil War?
There is no lack of information out there on the role of women in the Civil War. They didn’t march into battle but war is never just about the soldiers with the guns. Every Civil War soldier had a mother or a wife or a sister or fiancée back home. And when men go off to war, women take up the duties the men leave behind. More importantly, the Civil War is one of the few wars America has been in where the battles were fought right outside your front door. Women were able and willing to be involved in espionage, for example, because the war’s front lines were so close. Because of that, women were uniquely positioned to both provide information and relay information. There were female spies on both sides of the Civil War. Some dressed as men and joined the army, or posed as slaves, or just kept super vigilant in social circles. Rose Greenhow, for example, was a Confederate spy whose ten-word secret message to General Beauregard enabled the South to win the first major battle of the War. President Davis openly attributed the Confederate win at Manassas to Rose Greenhow. Elizabeth Van Lew lived in Virginia but candidly supported the Union. She took food and medicine to prisoners at the Confederate Libby Prison and passed information to General Grant. It’s believed she helped Union prisoners escape from Libby. These are just of two of many known female Civil War spies.
Q: The historical part of your novel is written in letters discovered in an old antebellum house. Why did you choose to tell that part in letters? How did that affect the story?
There are a number of ways to dovetail a contemporary story with a historical one. One way is alternating chapters, like I did with “Lady in Waiting.” Another way is through the literary remains of that historical point in time, like I did with a diary in “The Shape of Mercy,” and the letters in “A Sound Among the Trees.” I think there is an appeal about lost letters that alternating chapters don’t have, and while it seemed the obvious choice for “Lady in Waiting,” I didn’t think it was the obvious choice with this one. And I thought I could give Susannah a unique voice, a revelatory voice, if the reader had access to her most private thoughts – her sent and unsent letters to her cousin in Maine. I can’t imagine writing the story any other way. Those letters take us to the heart of the conflict.
Q: The Holly Oak house itself is almost a character in the novel – how can a house affect the people who live in it? How does Holly Oak affect the characters in your book?
The amazing thing about Home is they way we feel about it, not so much how Home feels about us. We empower our homes to have an aura of comfort and safety and belonging. Houses are walls and doors and windows and furniture. But that is not all they are. They aren’t just places to sleep and eat. You never hear about haunted cars or haunted grocery stores or haunted beauty salons. It’s houses that we sense have a connection to the past and the people who lived in them. Holly Oak represents the idea of trust to my characters. We want to feel safe and loved and wanted. But those three things always involve trust.
Q: The contemporary part of your novel centers on Marielle, an Arizona native who’s just moved across the country to marry a Virginian widower with two children she met online. What are the challenges she faces in becoming an instant wife and stepmother?
Adelaide’s odd attachment to the house, plus her lingering grief for Sara – the first wife – significantly hinder Marielle’s progress in making an easy transition from a never-been-married 33-year-old, to wife, stepmother and homemaker. Everything that defined her quiet, single life is gone, and even though she couldn’t wait to leave that life behind, her new life is stretching her. She is unprepared to live in a house where the past – even the saddest parts of it – is welcome to hang around as long as it wants to.
Q: The book’s reader’s guide says that in some ways this story is a “ghost story without a ghost.” Who or what is “haunting” the main characters, and how does this relate to the theme of letting go of the past?
Without spoiling the story for anyone I can say that the people in this book have different notions about how much control the past has over the present. We don’t always realize that we’ve a lot of influence over how much or how little the past intrudes on the present. Sometimes we let the past intrude because it seems safer to hang on to what we know, even if it’s not the ideal, than to release the past to grasp the future, which we don’t know.
Q: Another theme is that love equals sacrifice. Without giving away the story, what sacrifices do characters, especially the historic Susannah and the modern-day Marielle, make for love? Do you think love is worth any sacrifice?
In almost any great story about love there is a corresponding thread of sacrifice. Love always takes us to the place where we have to choose between self and the one we love. Susannah and Marielle come to that place in the book; one exponentially more so than the other, but both women give us a glimpse into love that is without limits. Love, to me, transcends the idea of merely being worth any sacrifice. Love is sacrifice; not in the sense that you have to be dead to prove your love for someone, but that you put your love for the other person above the love you have for your own desires and happiness. The word sacrifice is from the Latin sacer “sacred” – which means set apart – and facere “to do, perform.” Sacrifice is the sense of “something set apart for the sake of another.” That is love.