Review by Nanette Donohue, Historical Novel Society
Walt Whitman is well known as a great American poet, but few know of his compassionate visits to military hospitals during and after the U.S. Civil War. Two Brothers is based on Whitman’s encounters with William and Clifton Prentiss, two Maryland brothers who fought on opposite sides during the war. Whitman spoke extensively with William during the final days of his life, learning about his experiences fighting for the Confederacy. Whitman then shares this information with Clifton Prentiss, who is in the same hospital recovering from injuries sustained in the same battle. While the book is mainly about William Prentiss’s experiences, there are also flashes of other peoples’ lives present: mainly the Cary sisters, who were the toast of Richmond during its years as the Confederate capitol. The sections about the Cary sisters often serve as entertaining interludes between the battles, and they describe what the Confederate home front was like for women of means. The Carys were very resourceful, aiding the troops in any way they could, including smuggling supplies from Maryland to Virginia across the Union blockade.
Two Brothers is so grounded in fact that it sometimes reads like narrative nonfiction or, at times, a textbook about the Civil War, rather than a biographical novel. The plot is very linear, following the war’s timeline from the early battles to the surrender at Appomattox and beyond. Military maneuvers are often described in detail, including both the big-picture view of the war and the personal view of individual troops. Maryland was a battleground state during the Civil War, with residents’ loyalties torn between North and South, but the Prentiss brothers’ story is unique in that it was well documented. An appendix provides fascinating excerpts from some of Jones’s research, including quotes from contemporary accounts of the Prentiss brothers’ story. Jones makes good use of this source material, crafting a novel with strong appeal for military history buffs.