This Scorched Earth

This Scorched Earth is a 2018 work of historical fiction by William Gear set in the Arkansas Ozarks during the Civil War. While the Civil War has been fertile ground for historical fiction, novelists have rarely ventured west of the Mississippi River to the often-ignored Trans-Mississippi Theater. This Scorched Earth is an exception.

Gear avoids the stereotypical image of Arkansas Ozarkers as benighted hillbillies. The story centers around the experiences of the Hancock family—mother, father, three sons, and one daughter—who live in the highlands of northwestern Arkansas not far from Elkhorn Tavern. The eldest son is a doctor, a recent graduate of medical school in Boston, Massachusetts. The middle son spent time as a student in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he learned social graces and developed a love of the classics. Even after returning to frontier Arkansas, he is constantly quoting Shakespeare, Plato, and Aquinas. The daughter is a tall young woman whose physical beauty is matched by a quiet inner strength. The youngest son, fourteen when the war breaks out, is an accomplished marksman who prefers the woods and the company of his best friend, a forty-year-old Cherokee man named John Gritts. The mother is a tough, sturdy frontier woman who holds the family together with little help from her dissolute husband.

With the outbreak of the war, the father and the two older sons are soon in Confederate service east of the Mississippi River, leaving the mother, daughter, and remaining son to fend for themselves in a hostile environment. When the opposing armies move on after the battles of Pea Ridge (March 1862) and Prairie Grove (December 1862), northwestern Arkansas becomes a virtual no-man’s land, its citizens exposed to the depredations of roving bands of guerrillas and desperadoes. Gear skillfully weaves actual historical figures and events into his narrative (Thomas Hindman plays a significant role), but his story deals only tangentially with these well-known people and battles. At the heart of the narrative is what historian Dan Sutherland has aptly called “the real war in Arkansas,” the brutal, unrelenting guerrilla conflict that ravaged the state.

Though billed as “a novel of the Civil War,” the war years actually account for less than half of the book’s 704 pages. In a very real sense, however, the subtitle is accurate, because what happens to the Hancocks during the war years determines the course that their lives will take in the three and a half years that constitute the remainder of the novel. This Scorched Earth eschews a sanitized, romanticized version of the Civil War and, instead, presents a picture of unrelenting brutality based upon the extensive research done by Gear, who holds a master’s degree in archeology.

For additional information:
Conner, Elysia. “Wyoming Author’s Civil War–Era Novel More than 30 Years in the Making.” Casper Star-Tribune, May 1, 2018. Online at https://trib.com/entertainment/books-and-literature/wyoming-author-s-civil-war-era-novel-more-than-years/article_78f2fcd7-73db-5404-af3d-2b3eda0b580d.html (accessed August 26, 2020).

Gear, William. This Scorched Earth. New York: Forge, 2018.

Thomas A. DeBlack
Arkansas Tech University

This entry originally appeared in a different form in the Autumn 2018 issue of the Arkansas Historical Quarterly.

Last Updated: 08/26/2020