James Hanger, a peripheral figure in Civil War history, is the inspiration for “The Thin Gray Line,” a historical novel by Akron author Michael Kenneth Smith. Hanger was a teenager from Virginia who lost a leg in the Battle of Philippi the day after his enlistment.
Hanger also is a peripheral figure in Smith’s book. The picaresque story is that of Luke Pettigrew, a young Tennessee man whose hometown post office carried recruitment posters for both the Union and Confederate armies; Luke felt no real allegiance to either side but signed up after his father had thrown him out: “I felt like I was a rebel myself.”
Luke was assigned to the ambulance corps, where he became adept at suturing. He’s taken prisoner and taken to Camp Chase in Columbus but manages to escape and joins a cavalry unit on its way to Gettysburg. There he, like James Hanger, loses a leg.
While recovering, Luke fashions an ingenious prosthesis from wood, leather and rubber. Though he could start a new life as a civilian, he decides to return to the front as a surgical aide. He crosses paths with real-life characters “Jeb” Stuart, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis and is entangled in espionage. Eventually, he meets James Hanger, who has started a factory in Richmond to make prosthetic limbs, with Confederate government backing. The company exists today with almost two hundred branches, including one in Mayfield Heights.
Luke tries to resolve his sympathies to the warring factions while he fights his growing dependence on laudanum. His interactions with various African-Americans, including free black people and a young girl who becomes his traveling companion, inform his sensibilities about the meaning of the war and the Union.
“The Thin Gray Line” (411 pages, softcover) costs $13.99 from online retailers. Michael Kenneth Smith is a mechanical engineer and is retired from his auto parts business. In addition to two previous books about the Civil War, he has written “The Postwoman,” an inspiring historical novel about World War II Belgian resistance leader Andrée de Jongh.
Michael Kenneth Smith will sign “The Thin Gray Line” from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Village Bookstore, 8140 Main St., Garrettsville, and 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Learned Owl Book Shop, 204 N. Main St., Hudson.
In other news, “The Library Book” by Cleveland native Susan Orlean is a finalist in the nonfiction category in the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association Book Awards. It’s the story of a catastrophic 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library. The awards will be presented later this in September.
Loganberry Books (13015 Larchmere Blvd., Shaker Heights): John Brandt talks about “Nincompoopery: Why Your Customers Hate You — And How to Fix It,” 1 p.m. Sunday.
Akron-Summit County Public Library (Goodyear branch, 60 Goodyear Blvd.): Poet Cat Russell (“Soul Picked Clean”) reads from her work, accompanied by musician Ed Amann, 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Hudson Library & Historical Society (96 Library St.): Seats may remain for Sarah Smarsh, author of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest County on Earth,” 7 p.m. Wednesday. Call 330-653-6658.
Barnes & Noble (198 Crocker Park Blvd., Westlake): Phil Steele, author of “Phil Steele’s College Football 2019 Preview,” appears at 7 p.m. Wednesday; Miranda Gargasz signs “Haunting Suspicion,” 2 p.m. Saturday.
Akron-Summit County Public Library (Northwest Akron branch, 1720 Shatto Ave.): Jane Ann Turzillo talks about her Agatha Award-nominated “Wicked Women of Ohio,” 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday; Kathleen Fernandez discusses “Zoar: The Story of an Intentional Community,” 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Solon Center for the Arts (6351 SOM Center Road): Romona Robinson discusses “A Dirt Road to Somewhere,” 7 to 8:15 p.m. Thursday.
Akron-Summit County Public Library (Green branch, 4046 Massillon Road): Tim Estes reads from his storybook “Timothy the Duck,” 10:30 a.m. to noon Saturday.
Barnes & Noble (28801 Chagrin Blvd., Woodmere): Casey Klippel signs her storybook “Mr. Black and Slobber Monkey,” 11 a.m. Saturday.
Cuyahoga County Public Library (Southeast branch, 70 Columbus St., Bedford): Regennia N. Williams discusses storytelling and her books, including “Through the Lens of Allen E. Cole: A Photographic History of African Americans in Cleveland, Ohio,” 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Register at 440-439-4997.
Send information about books of local interest to Features Department, Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Event notices should be sent at least two weeks in advance.