Across the River

Furnass - The Civil War Years

In the summer of 1863, Judson Walker, a captain of Morgan’s Raiders, and Jonathan Reid, a young engineer, come to Furnass to appropriate two of Colin Lyles’ steam-powered road engines. The purpose is to outfit the engines with iron plate and the newly developed Gatlin Guns, and, with Morgan, deliver the war engines to General Lee’s army in Central Pennsylvania. Amid Walker’s growing involvement with Lyle’s wife Libby, deserting soldiers, and Reid’s own agenda, Walker learns Morgan isn’t coming. The novel reaches its climax with Lyle trying to sabotage the war engines. Walker must decide between Libby and duty toward his men, the war and individual human values.

1863 Map with Legend
Across the River

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Reader’s Guide to ACROSS THE RIVER

Summary

When Confederate soldiers Jonathan Reid and Judson Walker are assigned a confidential mission in the midst of the American Civil War, they are sent to the fictional town of Furnass, Pennsylvania, to strike a wartime deal with desperate Keystone Steam Works owner Colin Lyle. Masquerading as Union troops, they are ushered graciously into the home of Lyle and his wife, Libby, but soon realize that the house’s residents harbor several secrets. While Reid focuses his attention on ensuring that the deal is successful and fits the needs of the Confederacy, Walker—secretly a Furnass native—quickly finds himself entangled in the Lyles’ lives, growing closer to Libby and, consequentially, to uncovering several truths about the place he once knew. While the struggle between the North and the South wages on, so, too, does the battle between belonging and alienation, between love and indifference, and between defiance and ignorance in the lives of the people of Furnass. A virtuosic work of historical fiction, Across the River combines the experiences of imagined characters and real-life figures into an engrossing work dealing with matters of deception, power, and ethics in the lives of soldiers and civilians alike.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

  1. Would you characterize Libby as more of a northerner or southerner, especially within the context of the 1860s? Did your opinions on this change as you read? Why?
  2. How does the author successfully incorporate historical figure John Hunt Morgan into the story? How does he treat him differently from the fictional characters?
  3. In each of his Furnass Towers novels, Snodgrass uses italic passages to add an omniscient point of view to the narrative. How does his use of italics in Across the River differ from such passages in his other works?
  4. Some of the most recognizable titles in fiction, including Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, and Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, are set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Discuss how Across the River treats the war compared to these novels.
  5. During a heated discussion, Walker questions whether Colin “had to have a slave of some kind,” to which Libby replies, “I think most people do, in one form or another. Someone to do your bidding, someone or something to have dominion over.” Do you agree with this statement within the context of the novel? In present-day America?
  6. Discuss the similarities and differences between Reid and Walker and how they seem to view their mission as the novel progresses. What do you think are the primary reasons for their differences?
  7. At one point in the novel, Reid asserts, “I would much rather be disappointed than to know that I settled for less. Than to know that I could be satisfied to be second-rate.” Do you find yourself agreeing with this statement in your own life? Are there any exceptions—any situations in which you would willingly settle for less?
  8. Aside from the specific context of the American Civil War, how do you view the ethics of Reid and Walker’s mission? Discuss how these views correspond to your thoughts on the ethics of war in general.
  9. Why do Colin and McArtle react so differently to Reid and Walker’s presence in Furnass? Examine how their backstories, as well as their relationship with each other, contribute to this contrast.
  10. For what reasons does Sally’s assessment of Walker change so drastically as the story develops? In what ways are Sally’s actions an indication of Walker’s evolving role in the Lyle household?

Reviews, Extra Scenes, etc.

Reviews
To come.
Original Opening of Novel
In early summer of 1863, two riders — two Confederate horsemen, the one in the lead dressed in a Yankee cavalry officer’s uniform, the one following in a dark broadcloth suit and derby hat — made their way down the steep slope of a valley in enemy territory in Western Pennsylvania. Afternoon sunlight cracked through the branches overhead. The hills were thick with trees, white oak and maple and hickory, a hundred shades of green, softening the contours of the valley. Even in the shade, the day was hot and dry. The two men were covered with dust, their clothes prickly, small insects circled them like auras. Because of the trees, the two riders were hidden from view of the town across the river; but the trees also prevented the riders from getting a good look at the town.
Introduction for Original Opening
As with all of my novels, Across the River went through a number of rewrites, revisions, etc., over the years. Research for the book began in the late 1980s, with the first draft being written in 1992 – 1993. The following is the original opening for the book. At the time I was concerned about setting the scene—the town of Furnass and the Keystone Steam Works—in the 1860s, as well as establishing the characters of Judson Walker and Jonathan Reid, the relationship between them, and the background of why they had come here. But when I looked again at the story several years later, I realized that the opening moved much too slowly, that it was more compelling to allow the explication to come out as the story developed. Well, we live and learn—hopefully. Still, you may find compa  rison of the two openings of interest, if only as an example of the creative process and how this particular writer went about deciding what to include and what to leave on the cutting room floor.

I’m also including here the original sketch notes I made for this section. I’m happy to say that as  with any good sketch, outline, or plan, the value was in the making of it. When it came to finalizing the book, it was time to throw the original intentions aside and let the story itself determine where it was going and why.

1992 Notes for Opening

Galleries

Steam Traction Engines, Circa 1860s

Gatlin Guns circa 1860s

Morgan, Mattie, and his Men

Background