Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 14th, 2020.
Plot: 4.5/5 Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5
The best kind of historical fiction — a deep, richly painted, description of life in East Texas at the end of the Civil War. It’s an everyday adventure story — not about mythical heroes but about people trying to reclaim their lives in the chaotic aftermath of a devastating war.
Simon Boudlin — the titular fiddler — has simple goals after the war: find a piece of land, marry a woman with similar desires, and make a living with his music. But life after the Civil War is anything but simple. The novel is gritty with detail painting the turmoil of that time with a full sensory experience. While some semblance of government is trying to establish itself and put the country back together again, displaced and ruined people are scrambling to survive and make new lives. From my modern perspective life then was impossibly hard — but in this book it isn’t described in an emotional, complaining way. It just is the way it is. This is the story of people getting on with it — making their way by whatever means necessary, while still not losing their way morally.
Included are beautiful descriptions of music at the time: Simon’s lusting for new sheet music that he can’t afford, the way music draws yearning and memory from the new mash of people from disparate backgrounds, and the business side — how to get gigs, what needs to be played, and how to handle the drunks and disorderlies who insist on disrupting.
If you liked The News of the World, you’ll be just as captivated by Simon the Fiddler (in which Captain Kidd makes a surprise, cameo appearance!)
Beautiful writing that gets to essences. Some quotes:
“His worrying kept him awake. The country was in chaos, there were no rules, law was a matter of speculation, nobody knew how to buy land or put savings in a bank since there were so few banks, how to get a loan, register a title to land, or legalize a marriage, everybody was dubious about the new federal paper money, there was little mail service, and nobody seemed to know where the roads led.”
“So he lived in the bright strains of mountain music and the reflective, running pool of the Irish light airs that brought peace to his mind and to his audiences; peace soon forgotten, always returned to.”
“Every song had a secret inside. When he was away from shouting drunks and bartenders and sergeants and armies, he could think his way into the secret, note by note.”
“He knew that he did not play music so much as walk into it, as if into a palace of great riches, with rooms opening into other rooms, which opened into still other rooms, and in these rooms were courtyards and fountains with passageways to yet more mysterious spaces of melody, peculiar intervals, unheard notes.”
“His first problem was to find a girl who would fall in love with him despite his diminutive stature and his present homelessness.”
“People always tired him, always had, always would.”
“He was ragged, a man of a defeated army and at the dinner he had played his heart out in a borrowed shirt. In short, very like the Irish.”
“So it’s dog eat dog and Devil take the hindmost. So it has been in human memory, wild places where the only law is the strength of your good right arm.” He lifted his arm and made a bony fist. “That’s how it is in all human memory. ‘Vastness and Age! and Memories of Eld!’”
“You expect the government and the diplomatic corps to proceed at some foolish breakneck pace! There are substatutes to argy over and rewrite! And meantime the politicians must be paid their stipends and their travel expenses. Become wise, young man, and cynical, and life will be far more understandable.”