When Will This Cruel War Be Over?

If I’m going to complain about him, I may as well go for my Barry Denenberg completion badge.

Book: When Will This Cruel War Be Over? The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, Gordonsville, Virginia, 1864.  Barry Denenberg, 1996.


I have never figured out why this is considered one of the classics of the Dear America books, other than it was a fairly early one, dealt with the losing side of the Civil War, and probably consequently wound up being used in several school curriculums. Emma is such a drip that it’s difficult to get through, which is saying something for a book that’s only 152 pages long.

The titular Emma Simpson is a fourteen-year-old girl living in Virginia with her mother and their slaves, as her father and brother have gone off to war. The very first entry is Emma’s brother Cole returning home in a coffin after dying of pneumonia in a hospital somewhere. This is two days before Christmas, and with obviously no one in a festively merry mood, Emma reflects on their many lovely Christmases in the past—the food, the gifts, the family, the many slaves doing all of the work for them, etc. This is also where we meet Cousin Rachel, Emma’s closest friend and confidant, who will become important later on.

The entire book is written in short entries—a paragraph or even a couple of sentences—which sort of limits its capacity for introspection. But Emma is such a caricature of an 1860s character that it doesn’t ring true and realistic so much as just a blatant trying-too-hard copy. “O…” appears every few pages—“O how hard it was,” “O my sorrow,” “O how glorious I feel”—and realistic as that particular bit of locution may be, it’s a little heavy-handedly used. As much as I enjoy the aspects of other DA books in the “slice of life” genre, this one veers too much into the “record of daily events” type even for me. “Attended church today….It is snowing lightly. I washed my hair today.” Whatever, Emma.

Anyway, Emma goes back and forth reminiscing about old times, thinking about her looks, writing about how much she likes books and reading, and dull recollections of her daily activities. She reflects on how last year she met a boy—Taliaferro, called Tally—at a reception her aunt gave, and they spent the whole evening talking and he requested that she allow him to write to her. This takes her mind off her mother’s fever (and her mother is attended very faithfully by her slave Iris—“she is quite devoted”, since of course Iris has no choice in the matter). Hearing about her illness, Emma’s aunt Caroline, cousin Rachel, and baby cousin Elizabeth come to stay with them, which is lucky since Emma sinks into a deep depression when her mother is ill and can’t do anything useful. Good thing they have all those slaves.

Emma’s mother recovers for a bit, but remains fairly weak, and Caroline takes over most of the household management. Emma helps out with the baby a bit, but mostly remains content to read novels and write in her journal. She receives a letter from Tally written three months previously, in which he enclosed a ring too small for her to wear, but she wears it on a chain instead. Teen romance! Later that March Emma receives a letter from her father, where he discusses his feelings on the Negro race (inferior) and the good graces of their slaves to remain at the plantation. Even this cheery letter isn’t enough to revive Emma’s mother, who remains weak and ill. Cousin Rachel is no help either, since she spends most of her time moping about how she had to leave her boarding school thanks to the war and/or how boys are devilish knaves whom girls can never trust.

Emma’s mother continues worsening, and refuses all food. She dies that April, greatly shaking Emma’s foundation, but there’s a real lack of any true feeling in the writing. The following month she gets a letter from her father, consoling her on the loss, but Emma doesn’t know what to do with herself in all of the changes that have come so suddenly to her. She and Rachel fill their days with chatting, preparing bandages for the soldiers, and looking after the garden. They receive word of the death of several neighbour boys, and Emma gets the occasional letter from Tally as well discussing the mud and the lack of food and clothing they have in the field.

Their neighbours, the Garlingtons, spend a lot of time with Emma and her family, and Mr. Garlington keeps telling her that they treat their slaves too nicely, and he’s heard that they’re planning to run away. Emma is “surprised at [their] ingratitude,” and if this is a way of demonstrating how truly clueless many Southerners were that slavery was, you know, not a super happy and pleasant time for the slaves—it’s bang-on. Emma notes later “It is impossible for me to tell if the negroes understand what is taking place,” in reference to the war in general and emancipation in particular.

Emma also continues her mother’s work of educating the slave children—which is so dreadfully unusual that it doesn’t seem particularly realistic. This is what gets me about this book—it goes back and forth between pretty realistic depiction of a slaveowning family, and bits like “well, of course we educate our slaves! Why wouldn’t we?” and back again.

Also at one point Emma notes that her aunt’s pinky finger is as long as her ring finger, which is….bizarre and not in a good way. Do you have any idea how long that would make her pinky???

Cousin Rachel spends most of her time either being miserable alone in her room, or declaiming at length about how men are evil and not to be trusted. But we never learn why she feels that way, so it’s kind of unclear whether it’s supposed to be a manic-depressive type thing, or she had some type of tragic man-related incident in her past, or what. I have no idea.

Yankees invade their neighbour’s house, and the Broyles consequently come to live with them. But only a week or so after that, the Yankees commandeer the Simpson home to use as a headquarters. They load the silver and their other important things in the attic (and by they, I mean the slaves, of course) and retreat to three rooms upstairs. The Broyles in one room, Caroline and the baby in another, and Rachel and Emma in the last room (and Rachel spends most of her time refusing to leave said room, so a terrific companion.)

They receive a letter from Emma’s father bitching about abolition, and a letter from Tally who is miserable and near-starvation. Mr. Garlington tries to trick his slaves into burying his gold and silver without letting them know about it, and he is pretty puffed up about his amazing trickery before the Yankees pass through their countryside. Emma gives a drink of water to a dying Yankee soldier and then watches as they cart him away on the death wagon the next day. There’s another little interlude where a Yankee soldier helps another one of their neighbours, which is clearly intended to illustrate “Enemies: Sometimes they are good people!” but it’s a pretty ham-fisted effort.

Mr. Garlington is found the next week hanging from a tree and all the gold and silver he tricked his slaves into hiding was stolen. It’s fairly sloppy writing—“It appears they had been planning this insurrection for quite some time,” but there’s no antecedent to “they,” but why am I even complaining about it at this point. With nothing else to do, Emma muses about marriage—“I wonder if we would be happy as man and wife. Marriage is such a holy state, and I would not want to enter it unless it were to remain so.” What? I mean, holy and happiness are not the same, but again: whatever.

In November the Yankees depart, leaving the house in a terrible shambles, and the rest of the slaves except Iris and Amos leave with them, fleeing for better pastures. Emma is horrified at this, although frankly I don’t see why, since it sucks so badly for her that it’s probably about a thousand times worse for her slaves, so why wouldn’t they leave? Rachel talks constantly about how she feels like a heroine for resisting the Yankees, although she doesn’t actually appear to have done very much, but hey, neither has Emma.

In December Elizabeth, the baby, comes down with a fever and dies a few days later. This is the last straw, causing Emma a lot of despondent writing about how the last ray of hope is gone from their lives, and “I am growing thin and feel weak. I can no longer even weep.” Christmas comes again, and they don’t celebrate it. Again.

The end. Seriously.

In the epilogue, we learn that Emma and Tally were married in 1865 or 1866 and had two children. Aunt Caroline remained in the home and turned it into an orphanage, where Rachel helped only occasionally.

Rating: D. I really hated this book. Emma, as mentioned before, is a complete drip. The writing is such a caricature of what it “feels like” a mid-Victorian girl would write that it doesn’t feel true-to-life at all. There’s really very little plot there, even for the pretty thin standards of a DA book, and the whole thing is unbearably frustrating and short. I truly do not understand why Bess Brennan, the protagonist of another DA book from a few weeks ago, was so enthusiastic about getting to play Cousin Rachel, because Rachel is a complete loon. Don’t read this book and scratch it from the DA canon.


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