My Last Skirt: The Story of Jennie Hodgers, Union
Soldier by Lynda Durrant; Clarion Books:
New York, 2006; $16
To be free can have multiple meanings, but to Jennie Margaret Hodgers, in My Last Skirt: The Story of Jennie Hodgers, Union Soldier, it symbolizes having no skirts. For her, losing her skirt would mean losing all the limits that come with having the identity of a woman. The first time Jennie Hodgers puts on men's clothing is because, like many Irish families of the time (late 1850s), her family didn't have a lot of money. So she takes the role as a shepherd boy, until, after her father's death, she and her brother Tom move to America.
It is here that you witness betrayal from Tom. When he sees how much more successful she is in America, he reveals her secret to their employer.
This scene was very touching to me. My brother and I are very close. Just picturing him doing something such as that made me feel heartbroken. Although the author, Lynda Durrant, doesn't come out and say it, Jennie, or as she soon changes her name, Albert Cashier, is feeling a similar emotion.
Afterwards, "Albert" knows she can't stay in New York anymore. She gets on a train that takes her to Chicago. It is there that she does the unthinkable: Albert Cashier enlists in the Union Army The army is the test of whether the skinny Irish shepherd boy Albert Cashier or the tomboy Jennie Hodgers will survive.
In the end Albert Cashier wins, but not without disadvantages. The years in the army have changed her mental state, which insists that, at times, she really is a man, as well as her physical state. All of the laborious training has changed her gentle lady's body into hard, unnatural muscle. I couldn't help but admire how she keeps going in spite of these drawbacks.
The way the author creates Jennie is remarkable because Durrant has to give insight into Jennie's secret. She has to describe conflicts that prevent Jennie from revealing her identity and the personal pain that comes with the burden of keeping this secret.
As I read, I was in constant argument, as Jennie meets a man, Frank Moore, and will not let herself fall in love. I wanted to yell and say, "Just do it! You've lived a hard life. Do something that will make you happy!" It is in these ways that the author sucks you in.
Every author has their own way of drawing the reader in like that. For some, it is with conversation, or with others it could be descriptive details. In Durrant's case, it is with emotions. If something sad or depressing happened to Jennie, I could feel my eyes start to water. If something uncertain or scary was taking place then my hands would tense up around the book.
My Last Skirt: The Story of Jennie Hodgers, Union Soldier is for anyone, boy or girl, mom or dad. There is so much in it, including history, romance and adventure. However, because this book isn't meant to focus on the battles, the action scenes aren't the greatest ever. There is an easy-to-follow plot line, with surprises on every page. You'll find that you walk away with a lot of respect for Jennie (who was a real person) and the other petticoat soldiers who served their country, even though it didn't recognize their contributions.