Saturday, October 3, 2009
Book Review--The Killer Angels
Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War. Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 374 pages, 18 maps.
I am really not much of a reader of fiction. There are of course always exceptions to the rule and there are a few fiction books that are worth the time to read. For me the more hyped a book is the less likely I am to find them worth my effort. A pack mentality for fiction is usually a bad thing. The Killer Angels however is an exception. It is a wonderful book to read and should be required reading before any trip to Gettysburg. I wish I had read it before my first (and so far only trip).
For me good fiction should have several characteristics all of which Shaara accomplishes skillfully. The story should interest me just from reading the jacket. Accomplished. Second, the author should be able to set a mood and make you feel you are really there. Accomplished. For me a good example of this comes in the death scene of General John Reynolds. "A moment later Buford looked that way and the horse was bare-backed. He did not believe it. He broke off and rode to see. Reynolds lay in the dirt road, the aides bending over him. When Buford got there the thick stain had already puddled the dirt beneath his head. His eyes were open, half asleep, his face pleasant and composed, a soft smile. Buford knelt. He was dead." (pages 101-102) In a brief few lines Shaara has brought his readers onto the battlefield as if we were really there at the scene of Reynolds death. The language is not overdone nor does Shaara go overboard in his description. Third, and in many ways the most difficult, is speech has to sound realistic. Accomplished. More authors should read out aloud what they write and see if it sounds natural. The interplay between Generals Lee and Longstreet or maybe the exchanges between Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his brother Tom show Shaara's mastery of this. Lastly, and maybe of less importance, is that side characters should be interesting and not just space filler. Accomplished. Arthur Freemantle fills this role nicely.
Let's face it this is not history at it's finest. It doesn't claim to be. What it is however is a powerful read that doesn't gloss over the horrors of war. Fighting is not glamorous and Shaara doesn't make it out that way. What I think a reader will take away from this work is a rudimentary knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg and the major players. Before my visit to Gettysburg over a year ago I had read a long work on the battle. I was not prepared for what I was reading. Once I got back I read Killer Angels for the first time and much of what I had read previously made more sense. I can highly recommend this as a good starting point for the study of the battle and a book that is well worth rereading for those with in depth knowledge.