I have previously reviewed two other alternative history novels concerning the American Civil War - Harrison's A Rebel in Time and Turtledove's The Guns of the South (see my review list in the left column) - so it was natural for me to pick up a copy of Moore's Bring the Jubilee which, since its first publication in 1953, has become regarded as a classic.
Moore's approach is very different from the later works mentioned above. The principal character, Hodgkins McCormick Backmaker (Hodge), is a young man born in 1921 into a very different America. The Confederate side had won the American Civil War (known as the War of Southron Independence) and had since flourished, absorbing Mexico and other central and south American states and becoming one of the world's great powers, along with the German Empire (following their victorious 1914-1916 European war) and the British Empire. The northern rump of the United States of America is a backward, weak and impoverished country of no account in world affairs, but this is where Hodge was born and brought up. The plot of the novel almost entirely focuses on Hodge's experiences over a period of several years, painting a usually bleak picture of life in this alternative pre-industrial USA. In approach it therefore has a lot in common with P K Dick's The Man in the High Castle (also reviewed here), which similarly focuses on the aftermath of a different outcome of a war - in that case, World War 2. Moore does not deal directly with the Civil War until the very last part of the book.
Hodge is an unlikely hero, too big and clumsy to be of much practical use and only really interested in reading. He is an observer of life and only occasionally a reluctant participant, and his dream is an academic career as an historian, but that is highly unlikely in the restricted opportunities available to him. He leaves the farm where his parents barely scrape a subsistence-level existence and walks the dirt tracks to New York, where he finds employment in a bookshop. However, the city is full of tensions with the radical Grand Army, a banned nationalist organisation, competing with Southern agents, and Hodge becomes unwittingly involved.
This is not an easy read and I gave up at one point, before returning to it a couple of weeks later. The gloomy situation and Hodge's knack of falling into trouble become somewhat depressing, and only my interest in seeing how it turned out led me to return to it. Fortunately, the mood changes to one of (relative) optimism half-way through as Hodge's circumstances change for the better.
Critics of SFF usually point to a lack of characterisation but have nothing to complain about here. Not only is Hodge a well-drawn individual but so are several other characters: Tyss, the bookshop owner who offers a haven to Hodge; Enfandin, the Consul for the Republic of Haiti, a fellow-spirit who becomes his friend; and the three women in his life, Tirzah, his first love, the intensely conflicted Barbara and the captivating Catalina. In fact, from the SFF viewpoint Moore devotes too much time to developing his characters and not enough on exploring and explaining the very different world he outlines.
I can't say more about the story without spoiling some surprises, so I will merely say that the book deserves its classic status, even if it isn't the most cheerful or exciting of stories.
SPOILER WARNING - read no further if you want to read the book for yourself!
Hodge applies to universities, more in desperate hope than expectation since he has no formal qualifications, but to his surprise he is invited to Haggershaven, a combination of commune and academic refuge, where researchers are free to pursue their interests as long as they contribute labour to the running of the farm and various associated industries. For Hodge, it seems like Paradise. He now has the leisure to focus his interests on the War of Southron Independence and becomes a noted scholar, publishing well-received papers. However, he remains most intrigued by one crucial episode in the Battle of Gettysburg when a small number of Confederate soldiers were able to hold onto an important position, turning the tide of the battle and starting a cascade of Confederate victories which won them the war.
Meanwhile, another member of the Haggershaven community, a brilliant physicist, is working on a time machine. Tests prove that it can send and retrieve people for up to 100 years into the past, and Hodge cannot resist the temptation to visit that crucial position at the Battle of Gettysburg and see for himself what actually happened. I leave the rest to your imagination (or to the Wiki plot summary if you're really desperate to know). I will only say that the ending is unusual in that it represents both a triumph and a tragedy, depending on the perspective.