"Night Watch" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
Updated: Oct 9
It’s 1874, a buckboard makes its way to an insane asylum in Weston, West Virginia. A Civil War veteran drives the wagon. Beside him is 12-year-old ConaLee, who addresses the man as Papa. Also on the wagon is Eliza, a non-speaking, despondent woman who the man instructs ConaLee to call Miss Janet, when they arrive at the asylum. Papa has a plan for the pair. The girl will act as if she’s the woman’s maid and speak for her, as she’s been told to do.
It becomes obvious that Eliza and ConaLee have suffered abuse at Papa’s hands, twisted, sick treatment that continues on their journey. The girl tries her best to understand what’s happening and to protect Eliza, who recently gave birth to Papa’s twins, infants he sees as “…a bother and a burden.”
This gripping opening launches “Night Watch” by Jayne Anne Phillips, a smart, expertly researched historical fiction novel that’s addictive from first page to last. Once the buckwagon reaches the asylum, and Eliza and ConaLee are deposited there, the novel shifts to 1864, providing readers with the backstory of a Confederate sharpshooter and his wife Eliza, who is pregnant with ConaLee just as the war breaks out.
Another major player in the novel is the sharpshooter’s adoptive mother Dearbhla, the angel-savior who ConaLee comes to know as “granny-neighbor.”
We learn, unbeknownst to the sharpshooter, injured and away at war, that Papa is a depraved plunderer who surprised Eliza in her hideaway property on an “…isolated Allegheny ridge in frontier Virginia…” taking control of her rifle and forcing Eliza to reveal where she’s hidden her young daughter ConaLee. So begins the nightmare the two endure at the hands of Papa, an ordeal that eventually forces Eliza to stop speaking in an effort to save her daughter’s life.
While Eliza and ConaLee do their best to survive, the sharpshooter suffers his own hell—a catastrophic head wound wipes away any memory he has of his family or his life before the war. He’s nursed back to health by a kind doctor at the hospital. Eventually the sharpshooter's association with the doctor leads to a position that connects the sharpshooter to his past. To say more would ruin the cliff-hanger plot twist.
“Night Watch” is a brilliant book, it’s construction genius, its characters rich, the good ones capturing your heart, like ConaLee, a brave, clever child, a survivor—and the bad ones, like Papa, despicable to the point of repulsion in grisly scenes readers might have to squint to get through.
This incredible story is supported by facts and photos from Civil War times, information about the actual Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum and quotes taken from a book by Quaker physician Thomas Story Kirkbride, who advocated “moral treatment” for the mentally ill for “…some fifty years until his humane methods, like all methods, fell out of favor.”