Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cannonball Read #2: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

As I may have mentioned before, I spent much of my childhood as a history buff. My parents--being the sort of people who prided themselves on limiting my television consumption and seeing that I learned to read before I turned four--were happy to oblige my desire to see everything historical within reasonable driving distance. Since I grew up north-central Pennsylvania, Gettysburg was an obvious destination. It was my first battlefield, and I ran around reading every single monument, trying to take in as much as possible. My interest piqued, I went on to spend three weeks one summer at nerd camp studying the Civil War. Our class took a trip to Gettysburg, where we marched along the route of Pickett's charge, climbed through Devil's Den, and attempted to charge up Little Round Top. The feeling of interacting with such an intensely historic place was dizzying.

Which brings me to The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, a book detailing the events of the Battle of Gettysburg. I expected to enjoy the book for its subject matter alone--I did NOT expect to be totally blown away by the story, the writing, and the detail. I have to say that it may have unexpectedly been vaulted into my "Top 5 Books of All-Time" list, it is so good.

1. The story is told from the perspectives of several of the major players on both sides of the conflict, including Robert E. Lee and Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. There does seem to be more chapters from the Confederate side than the Union side, but that may be only Shaara found more primary sources (letters, diaries, etc.) from the Confederate side. (Shaara based nearly all dialogue and events on those documented by witnesses or the players themselves at the time.) It seems to be a pretty fair depiction of both sides--neither is shown as "right" or "wrong" but simply as opposing. In fact, men on both sides are shown as being conflicted about their motivation--why are they there and what are they hoping to accomplish?

2. The book has a number of page-sized maps to show landscape and troop movements, which was extremely helpful to me. Being able to see exactly where each group was in relation to the others and to the geographic markers made it much easier to see the battle in my head.

3. The characters have very distinct voices and are all separate and interesting. In a book like this, there is the danger of having characters all blend into one another--after all, many of them are career military men, all of a similar age and from similar backgrounds. However, Shaara does a great job of giving each man his own voice, his own internal voice and conflicts. He describes each one in depth, so you can really get a mental picture of what the character looks like, how he interacts with the others. And I found myself feeling deeply for each and every character, whether I agreed with him or not.

4. The descriptions of the battles are amazing. He details the sights, the sounds, the smells, the physical feelings of being in battle. Some of the scenes, particularly the fight for Little Round Top and Pickett's charge left me breathless. Even though I knew the outcome, I couldn't help getting totally drawn in and rooting for everyone to win. Actually, the details of everything were pretty great. The book was a pleasure to read--I never once found myself bogged down in a long description or confused about what was going on.

5. I appreciated the in-depth explanations of what occurred at Gettysburg. I had not realized what a tactical disaster the battle had been for the Confederacy. Nor did I understand why the actions that were taken had occurred until I read this. The book illustrates simply and clearly WHAT HAPPENED AND WHY.


I guess my fascination with Gettysburg is that feeling of HISTORY, of being in a place where something devastating and ferocious and important occurred. When I went to Europe, you pretty much couldn't spit without hitting something 500 years old and stuffed with history. In the USA, we don't have all that. We have the Revolution and the Civil War and that's pretty much it on our own soil. Even now, in my current home of Boston (which has quite a bit of its own historical significance) I don't get that same guttural connection to the past. With Gettysburg, I looked out across that field knowing that 15,000 men, stretched out into lines nearly a mile wide, had marched--many without shoes--into the face of nearly certain death. Or on Little Round Top, thinking of Chamberlain and his men out at the far flank, running out of ammo, with wave after wave of Confederates climbing up to try and break the line. It's a connection that strikes me deep-down somewhere--someone did something important here...and now here I am and I am part of it. It is an awesome feeling (in the original sense of the word awesome.)

This book made me remember those feelings, besides being a good read.

I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in US history, but it's also great on its own as a book about a battle.

P.S. This is the book that the film Gettysburg was based on. I also highly recommend that film--the performances are dazzling, the fight scenes incredible, and it was all shot on location.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome review and very awesome book. I even went on to read the sequel and prequel and then his son went on to write book on the Mexican American War in the same style that was very good.