Novel set in Lawrence blends historical fact, fiction

If Tom Mach hadn't retired to Lawrence a year and a half ago, his first novel would tell an entirely different story.

The Civil War buff and retired freelance writer thought he knew just about everything there was to know about the war and already had penned several chapters of a book set in Ohio.


Special to the Journal-World

Lawrence author Tom Mach signs copies of his first novel, "Sissy!" at Framewoods Gallery in Topeka. The book blends historical fact and fiction to tell the story of a young Lawrence woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for the Union army during the Civil War.

"From everything I understood about the Civil War, it seemed to be a key state," he says.

But he and his wife arrived in Lawrence during Civil War on the Western Frontier, a week of activities dedicated to remembering the role Lawrence and Kansas played in events leading up to the war. That's when Mach learned about the infamous Quantrill's Raid, which apparently had not been infamous enough to make it into Mach's repository of war knowledge.

"I didn't know who Quantrill was, and yet I considered myself a devotee of the Civil War," he recalls. "You hear a lot of things about Fort Sumter beginning the war. ... I was quite astonished how important Kansas really was to the war itself."

So Mach started from scratch and set the story in his new home state.

Although the resulting "Sissy!" may take place in 1860s Kansas (and other cities where important battles took place or characters traveled), its protagonist is a 21st century girl through and through.

Mach blends carefully researched historical fact with fiction to tell the story of Jessica Radford, a young, progressive woman hell-bent on avenging the deaths of her parents, who were murdered by a pro-slavery ruffian named Sam Toby.

On her mission to stamp out Toby and fight for the abolitionist cause, she disguises herself as a man and enlists in the Union army, eventually volunteering for a dangerous spy mission that helps the North in the war.

Mach based Jessica on stories he'd heard about women soldiers fighting in both the Union and Confederate armies.

"It must have taken a tremendous amount of courage to do that, to risk being found out, to possibly be killed," he says. "They must have had very strong beliefs when they made that decision. I just so much admired what they did that I felt I had to write a story about them. They're the forgotten heroes of the war."

Grass-roots warriors

Jessica's not alone in Mach's 343-page novel, the first of a planned trilogy. The author weaves a tangled web of characters all tied together by connections with the heroine.

There's the Rev. Matt Lightfoot, who's part Cherokee and represents indigenous Americans called into service on both sides of the war.

Then there's Nellie, the slave girl whom Jessica's parents adopt when Otto Heller, a Lawrence conductor on the Underground Railroad, rescues her from a slavecatcher. Sissy, the ghost of a murdered slave girl, acts as Nellie's guardian angel. She's only visible to Nellie until late in the book, when she helps Jessica avoid an awful mistake.

Other freed slaves in the book, such as Tinker, Lazarus and Ishmael, illustrate the role blacks played in fighting for their own freedom with the Union army.

Otto Heller helps most of the book's slave characters achieve their freedom. Mach's original novel wasn't even going to address the slavery issue. Instead, he planned to focus on the great generals and battles. It didn't take him long to realize the real war heroes worked at the grass-roots level, and Lawrence served as a hub for many of them.

"I'm very proud to live here," Mach says. "It was one of the few town in Kansas that was really doing something to hide slaves and to help the Underground Railroad and to really feel that slavery was evil. In a time when all this turmoil was going on and people considered slaves property and not really even human, the Lawrence people felt totally differently."

Factual fiction

Mach also included in the book people who actually existed, such as William Quantrill, abolitionist senator and general James Lane, and Pelathe, the Shawnee Indian who attempted (but failed) to warn Lawrence of Quantrill's attack -- the tragic event that ends the book.

Those familiar with Lawrence history will recognize street names -- such as Massachusetts, Pinckney and Warren -- and businesses like the Kansas Pioneer and the Republican, published by newspaperman John Speer, an abolitionist who also appears in Mach's book.

Mach paid almost obsessive attention to detail, poring over historic documents, Civil War books, maps and photographs to recreate the clothing, food, news, transportation and speech of Civil War era people.

"I wanted to be sure that everything I did was authentic," says Mach, who self-published "Sissy!" so it would be out in time for Lawrence's sesquicentennial.

What comes across is a story so genuine, Mach says, that people have been fooled into believing it's all true.

A man who sings with Mach in his church choir recently asked where Jessica Radford was buried and if she was buried with her parents.

"I said, 'What are you talking about? I made that up,'" Mach says. "He was kind of upset with me because he thought she was real. That was a strong compliment to me."

Another compliment came from the Kansas Authors Club, which named "Sissy!" the J.D. Coffin Memorial Book Award for Best Kansas Novel. Mach hasn't started the second book in the Jessica Radford trilogy, but he suspects it will take readers through 1880 and include events like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Mach says people who don't typically read books about the Civil War have enjoyed "Sissy!" because of its focus on the emotions of the conflict.

"My story is a story of compassion and forgiveness. You have this era of hatred and violence, and you have compassion and forgiveness trying to get a foothold," Mach says.

"A single event, a real national tragedy, brother fighting against brother and a lot of slaughter going on, a lot of heartache going on, people with compassion, such as people with the Underground Railroad -- you've got all the emotions you can think of happening around this one event, one major event that changed our nation's history and forever changed how we thought about our country."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.