Hattie heard the strangers approaching long before they reached her father’s tobacco farm. The groan of straining wagon wheels. The thudding of horses’ hooves on the hard Missouri dirt. And as she lay worrying and waiting for what was to come, she looked out of her upstairs window until she finally saw their shadowy shapes form at the edge of the yard.
She crept out of bed and headed downstairs, wondering who would visit their home in the middle of this stifling August night night. Was it a neighbor in need or a band of raggedy soldiers seeking shelter?
Hattie, the heroine of Susan Salzer’s dramatic Civil War-era novel Up From Thunder, was about to find out.
Outside, she heard men yelling and Pa’s scuffled footsteps on their warped wooden porch. The front door flew open like it had been forced by an invisible wind, and a group of scruffy men with guns hurried a fellow rider inside. They marched him up to the tiny attic with a large trail of blood following behind them.
Through the light of Pa’s flickering lantern, she looked at the face of the wounded man as they carried him by. He was pale, but handsome, with sharp cheekbones and a boyish face. She had no idea who he was, and she turned to Pa quizzically. He looked back with worried eyes and whispered, “Hattie, I am going to need your help.”
A historical narrative set in the fall of 1864, Up From Thunder, tells the tale of fictional 16-year-old Hattie Rood, a Ray County farm girl, who helps nurse a 17-year-old Jesse James back to health after he is nearly shot to death trying to steal a saddle from a nearby farm.
While in reality, it was Zee Mimms, Jesse’s first cousin and future wife, who nursed him back to health after this actual gun shot injury in 1864, telling this similar story through Hattie’s voice adds compassion and innocence to a drama unfolding in the violent, savage period of the Civil War.
In the book, Hattie and her father care for the badly-injured Jesse for a month while worrying what will happen if Union soldiers catch them hiding him and his ever-present band of his rebel bushwhacker friends. As each day becomes more intense and dangerous, another visitor makes his way to the Rood farm. It is Hattie’s older brother Doak, a homesick Confederate soldier who has no use for Jesse’s style of “war” or his group of guerilla friends. He watches sadly and helplessly as Hattie falls in love with the charming and confident Jesse.
Overall, Salzer does a great job of seamlessly weaving historical facts, actual events, and real people like the James brothers and Bloody Bill Anderson into this heartbreaking novel. Her fluent writing style and descriptive language also bring the essence of 1864 western rural Missouri to life, including the many physical hardships, the bitter hatred between Northern and Southern sympathizers and the lawlessness of the times.
As far as a category, Up From Thunder falls into the “afternoon book,” group because it reads at a quick pace. And at less than 200 pages, it feels more like a novella than a novel. It is also an “afternoon book” because it can easily be enjoyed during an afternoon in the backyard hammock or while spending a few hours at the park.
In fact, this compact gem of historical fiction began its life as a short story entitled “Cornflower Blue,” which won a 2009 Spur Award (given by the Western Writers of America). It was then expanded by Columbia, Missouri-based author Salzer and turned into Up From Thunder, her first novel.
That leads to one minor complaint with the book. With it being so short and fast-paced, the plot feels a little rushed and condensed at times. There are moments in the book that need a slower pace, and a more-in depth character examination. Expanding the novel further would have also allowed Salzer to incorporate even more Missouri and Civil War history into its already fact-based pages.
That being said, if you like historical fiction and are looking for a quick read with an engaging storyline and a surprise twist at the end, be sure to check out one of the library’s copies of Up From Thunder by Susan Salzer. It will turn into an afternoon of reading you’re bound to enjoy.
And one last note. If you enjoy this book and want to read more Civil War historical fiction involving Missouri, also check out a copy of Wildwood Boys by James Carlos Blake.
About the Author
Amy Morris is a technical assistant at the Westport Branch. She earned a B.A. in English, with an emphasis in creative writing, from Avila University. Besides reading and writing, Amy enjoys traveling, art, being creative, and spending time with her family.