Monday, February 10, 2020

Megan Kate Nelson's "The Three-Cornered War"

Megan Kate Nelson is a writer and historian living in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She has written about the Civil War, US western history, and American culture for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, Preservation Magazine, and Civil War Monitor. Nelson earned her BA in history and literature from Harvard University and her PhD in American Studies from the University of Iowa, and she has taught at Texas Tech University, Cal State Fullerton, Harvard, and Brown.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West, and reported the following:
A browser turning to page 99 of The Three-Cornered War will find her/himself reading the first page of Chapter 10, “Glorieta.” The first section of the page describes the location of Henry Hopkins Sibley’s Confederate soldiers in early March 1862, as they move northward through New Mexico Territory after their victory against the Union army at Valverde.

“Glorieta” is one of only three of the book’s 22 chapters that bears the name of a battle in the Civil War West, rather than the name of one person. This is because I tell the story of the Battle of Glorieta Pass using two peoples’ experiences: Bill Davidson, a Texas lawyer and soldier in the Sibley Brigade; and Louisa Canby, the wife of the Union Army’s commander E.R.S. Canby, and a civilian living in Santa Fe.

Page 99 includes a “break,” which I use in this chapter to indicate that the narrative is shifting to another voice. On this page, the narrative moves from Davidson’s viewpoint as he marches from Albuquerque to Santa Fe to just one sentence that describes Louisa Canby waiting for Davidson and his fellow Texans to arrive in the city, which has been abandoned by Union troops.

Unless the browser knows a lot about the history of the Civil War West, she/he will likely be a little lost. The reason for this is directly related to the book’s multi-perspective narrative, an approach more often seen in novels than in histories. This means that readers turning to page 99 will not know who Bill Davidson and Louisa Canby are, while readers from page 1 will know all about them from previous chapters written from their individual perspectives.

So while the browser would get a good idea of the unique narrative style of The Three-Cornered War from page 99 alone, she/he would likely not understand the context or the significance of Davidson’s and Canby’s situations in the days before the battle at Glorieta Pass. And they would not get a sense of the book’s larger arguments about why the American Civil War was in fact a continental conflict, one that involved the North, the South, and the West.
Visit Megan Kate Nelson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue