Ellis' novel provides look at 19th century

In Virginia Ellis' novel "The Wedding Dress," Julia and Victoria Atwater, young widows of Confederate soldiers, are left to mourn for their families and depleted Southern community, tend their fading Virginia plantation, support themselves financially and resist Reconstruction.

They're clearly daunted and traumatized by their prospects, yet not caricatured as hysterical, like so many other self-aggrandizing Southern women of fiction. Their future is bleak but they understand and accept the fact that during their lifetimes they might go hungry again.

"With the war lost and President Lincoln dead by the hand of what the Federals called 'a Southern sympathizer,' we had no idea what to expect. We'd be lucky to keep our family land, much less have families and a future of our own."

With little delay, the women set their sights upon making a wedding dress and finding a suitable husband for their 17-year-old sister Claire, all the while admitting privately that an eligible bachelor is hard to come by in these times � namely, 1865, six months after the Civil War.

They're in a pinch and the only men they've seen lately are, literally, the ghosts of Confederate soldiers. Yet finding a mate for little sister ensures the older sisters' future, says Julia, the narrator and surprisingly sober middle sister. She reminds herself frequently of the benefits that may bloom from her initial desire to soothe a saddened teen-age girl and forget her own grief.

Ellis' story is elaborately woven with an unabashedly romantic sensibility, dizzying at times yet quietly tempered by practicality. The thread on the wedding dress may be silk and the buttons pearl, but the bodice is mere calico � a buff-colored material bought by selling off family linens, hens, shoes, musket-cleaning tools and a wedding band. Such is the grace and charm of this eloquently subdued diary of sorts.


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