A central character in The Home Guard is Martha “Missma” Gibbes Barnwell, Carter Barnwell’s eighty year old grandmother. It is, after all, she who refuses to leave Beaufort during the Great Skedaddle and insists that Carter stay with her in the family hunting lodge, an idea his mother Anna calls “insane.”
In modern America, the fates and lifestyles of octogenarians are in great flux. Medicine is prolonging life and often improving the quality of that life beyond what could have been imagined in Missma’s day. Take the simple but now common hip replacement. Hips wear out, even in normal usage. To get a new one, with the renewed mobility that comes with it, can be heaven-sent. Genetic advances are hastening the day when virtually all internal organs can be transplanted, and 3D printers hold untold possibilities for overcoming disease and congenital abnormalities.
But with all these advances, many of the same challenges Missma faced in 1861 are with us today. Those include not just where to live and how to live but arguably the most important challenge: why live at all? In truth, many elderly wake up each morning with no compelling reason to get out of bed. No one is depending upon them, and in the saddest cases they may not be missed for extended periods. In an infinite variety of ways, these folks ask themselves whether the world would be any different by their absence in it.
Missma faces such a crisis as The Home Guard opens in 1861. She has enjoyed a full life blessed by family, friends, and economic ease. Yet she craves more, an adventure that will cap her final years. As she sees it, the best adventure imaginable would be one that involves the past, the present and her diminishing future. Her escape to the Lodge with Carter recalls her past, because she has a history there that only she knows and has never divulged. The secret will die with her unless she whispers it into a receptive ear. Surviving the war in a hunting lodge with her grandson, in a war zone, gives her an immediate present which will take thought, ingenuity and resolve. And her future? Well, we will learn it as she does and as the plot of the novel unfolds. As she tells Carter, their time together is an adventure beyond anything she could have imagined.
The plagues of old age threaten Missma the way they threaten many of us; physical decline, Alzheimer's, senility, loss of appetite for food and life, the death of friends. For Missma, there will be no assisted living, no colorfully decorated reception area for visitors between two and five on Sundays, no birthday cake celebration among walkers and hearing aids. She will go out on her terms, squeezing the last ounce out of a life well lived. We could all do worse.