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Reviewed by Viga Boland for Readers' Favorite
In the epilogue to The Sultana Odyssey, through the reflections of his protagonist, Dr. Finley Horne, author Paul Brennan observes that “What gives us strength is not about doing the right things; it is about surviving the wrong things.” That describes perfectly who this story is about. What a superb job Paul Brennan has done in illustrating the truth of his statement through the characters, plot, and settings. In a skillful blend of fact and fiction, Brennan’s explosive opening chapter whisks readers back to the mid-1860s. The American Civil War is all but done. Heartache, loss, and bitterness abound as war-weary soldiers, many minus limbs, struggle to find a reason to go on. Lawlessness prevails. In the midst of it all, Dr. Horne arrives at his aunt’s Southern farm to see his sister, Isabella. Their mother is dying. He wants to take her back to Chicago to see mom one last time. Does he succeed? The now proverbial words of John Lennon come to mind: “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” No truer words were ever spoken in regard to Finley. Captured and jailed in a Confederate prison, he escapes with three others including a Choctaw Indian. Determined to get back to Isabella, his journey is, at times, gut-wrenching with what he sees and experiences as a doctor, thanks to the war. Yet, he also meets up with so many courageous, good people; a beautiful balance from a writing viewpoint of the good and the bad.
This part of the plot is the fictional, touching part of the story that makes you ponder the futility of war and its irreparable costs. But it’s the factual side that has you gasping and shaking your head in disbelief when 2300 people from various sides of humanity, crammed onto the steamship, Sultana, are suddenly plunged into the chilly waters of the Mississippi, or burned to death on the sinking ship after its boilers explode. Paul Brennan’s graphic descriptions of what these people saw, felt, and struggled to survive…750 did…are as shocking and unforgettable as the explosive beginning of this historical novel. Brennan includes short excerpts of survivors’ words at the end of the book, adding credulity to what you will find incredible. Don’t miss out on reading The Sultana Odyssey. Brilliant!