The Reader’s Nook: “Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen” by Sarah Bird

Book Review by Michelle Goetzl

“My real life, the one I was meant to have, did not start until an August night in 1864, three years into the war, when I watched the only world I’d ever known burn to the ground and met the man who was to be my deliverance and my damnation, the Yankee general Philip Henry Sheridan.” This is where Sarah Bird’s new novel Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen begins. The book is loosely based on the life of Cathay Williams, a woman who pretended to be a man and joined the first African-American army unit after the Civil War. Though a work of fiction, Bird’s book presents a fascinating look at what life might have been like for her.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen begins while Cathy (as her name is spelled in the book) is mistaken for a boy and taken as “contraband” to assist Sheridan’s cook as the Union army continues to battle the rebels. While on the wagon to the camp, she meets a wounded black soldier and falls hopelessly in love with him – just before he dies and is tossed off the truck. Cathy is already a bit of a spitfire, and initially struggles to find her place. She grows more and more knowledgeable during her time in the camp and through her unexpected friendship with the camp cook, Solomon.

When the war ends, those considered contraband are at loose ends. They don’t want to go back to the South where they are still unwelcome, and they don’t necessarily want to go north where not all Yankees care about freeing slaves. Cathy and many of the men are enticed by a young black general to enlist in the army. During the war, many women fought beside men, but a peacetime army is a different story. Still, Cathy feels that it is her only choice.

Cathy manages to get placed in the cavalry after a “necessary parlay” with Vickers, a bully of a soldier who would turn out to be her arch-nemesis. Life as a Buffalo Soldier is much harder than Cathy could have ever imagined. There is infighting among the soldiers, the domineering Vickers tries to manipulate his way to the top and life in the close quarters of the barracks is something Cathy didn’t consider. Keeping her secret while not casting herself as an outsider or divisive soldier becomes her first priority.

When the black troops move west, they face white commanders who want nothing to do with them. The job of the Buffalo Soldiers was to root out the Indians so America could take over their land. Cathy and a few other soldiers soon realize that they have more in common with the Indians than the white Americans who hated them.

Crafted from the little-known life of African-American woman Cathay Williams, who served in the US Army during the Civil War as Private William Cathay, this incredibly well-researched novel weaves fact and fiction together to create a very readable tale about a part of America’s history that is often forgotten. Lovers of historical fiction, especially those surrounding the Civil War and American West, will enjoy this stunning new book.

Michelle Goetzl writes an online blog—“Books My Kids Read.” She loves books and sharing that love of reading with children. She can be reached at booksmykidsread@gmail.com.