For Book Clubs
In I Shall Be Near To You, strong-willed Rosetta follows her new husband Jeremiah into the Union Army, braving the constant threat of discovery as she disguises herself as a man in order to stay beside him. But as Rosetta marches from the parade ground to the battlefield, the realities of war set in, and the tension between Rosetta and Jeremiah increases as he comes to grips with having a fighting wife. Rosetta must decide: is her place alongside Jeremiah no matter what, or should she go home to safety?
The original inspiration for I Shall Be Near To You was the collection of Civil War letters Sarah Rosetta Wakeman wrote to her family while she was serving as a private in the Union army. When I discovered her letters, I was shocked that I’d never heard of her or any of the hundreds of women fought in the Civil War. As I wrote, I hoped that this novel would serve as a tribute to these women and help them become part of the larger story we tell about this country.
If you’d like to talk more about the book, the research that went into the writing of it, and how I used that research to imagine the experience a female soldier might have had, I’d be honored to be a part of your book club’s discussion, in person or via Skype. Just send an email to email@example.com and we’ll work out the details.
Please note: In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this novel—as well as the ending. If you have not finished reading I Shall Be Near To You, I respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this guide.
1. Rosetta asks (either implicitly or explicitly) many of the other characters in the novel to keep her secret, which they do with varying degrees of willingness. Discuss the role of secrets in the novel and the impact Rosetta’s secret has on her relationships–with Jeremiah, the boys, Will, Jennie, her family. Why is Rosetta so upset when her mother suggests that if Rosetta will just come home, they will never speak of what she has done?
2. Was Rosetta right to keep the specifics of Eli’s attack a secret from Jeremiah? Was she right to keep her pregnancy a secret?
3. Discuss Rosetta’s reasons for keeping secrets for others. For instance, what makes Rosetta willing to keep Will’s secret? Why doesn’t Rosetta confront or turn Mrs. Greenhow in when she realizes Mrs. Greenhow may still be spying and passing information?
4. Why is Rosetta so affected by the secret identity of the wounded female soldier she finds on the battlefield?
5. Rosetta’s presence is a source of conflict between Jeremiah and his friends (Henry and Sully in particular). Though Jeremiah repeatedly attempts to send Rosetta back home, claiming that she would be safer at home and saying at one point that he “wanted something to make it back for,” by the time they reach Antietam, he seems to have accepted Rosetta’s presence. Should he have sent her back, or was it better for her to have stayed? Was her presence more of a help or a hindrance? Is safety more important than companionship?
6. Had the battle of Antietam turned out differently, how successful do you imagine that Rosetta and Jeremiah would have been in getting their own farm? How would their shared experience have helped them? Would the fact that Jeremiah would never have to explain to Rosetta what the war was like really be a benefit? Would their experiences change their relationships with their families in a way that might make them more (or less) motivated to work their families’ farms instead of going West?
7. Will is the most deeply religious character and often the one who voices a sense of morality. Yet he also wrestles with his sexual identity and whether or not it is a sin. Given the times in which he lives and the situation he and Rosetta find themselves in, is he right to propose marriage to Rosetta? What do you think of his reasons for proposing? What do you think of Rosetta’s reasons for turning him down? How successful would a marriage between the two of them likely be? How likely do you think it that they will be able to maintain a friendship beyond the war?
8. Various characters in the novel posit the idea that the war is not worth the cost, that there is no healing the rift it has caused, with Rosetta herself saying “I will always be stained, this land will always be scarred by what we’ve done, its harvest will always bring the taste of blood to our mouths.” Is she referring to the war itself, or the causes for it? Was the extreme human cost of the Civil War justified? Has the country managed to heal itself or are the scars left behind still visible, still an integral part of our nation’s identity?
9. Though they faced conflict, did you feel that Rosetta and Jeremiah’s relationship was strong? What do you think made Jeremiah and Rosetta a match for each other?
10. Were you surprised to find out that there are historical examples of women fighting in the Civil War? Which of the various reasons for serving seem most compelling to you (for money, to follow a loved one, for the principle, for the freedom, for the adventure)? What do you imagine would have been the hardest obstacle a female soldier at the time would confront?
11. Rosetta feels deeply that her status as a woman prevents her from taking on the tasks she most enjoys and bars her from living the life she truly wants. Given the other female characters portrayed in the novel, Jennie, Mrs. Greenhow, and Clara Barton in particular, is there a place for a woman like Rosetta? Is Rosetta’s conflict really with the gender roles conveyed by society at large or with the expectations certain individuals in her life (her Mama and Jeremiah’s Ma in particular) have of her? What limitations have you felt because of your gender?
12. The real women who fought in the Civil War experienced greater freedom living as men than they did as women—earning more money, and, in some cases, taking the opportunity to vote. Do you think the benefits of having more freedom would be worth the potential costs? Do you think they saw the connection between the war they were fighting and their own freedom, as Jennie suggests?
13. What kind of life do you imagine for Rosetta once she leaves the Union Army?