Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Killer Angels

by Michael Shaara
Star Rating: 3 out of 4

This book justifies that wonderfully cliched old reviewing phrase - compulsively readable.

The Killer Angels is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelization of the greatest battle of the Civil War: Gettysburg. The novel follows the stories of several generals and colonels on both sides; in my edition, the ranks and relationships of the primary characters were summarized at the beginning, which was very helpful to refer to until I'd gotten them all straight in my head. The book begins with the armies moving around each other only to eventually converge on Gettysburg, until then a small Pennsylvania town of no consequence, for the three days of battle. It's an excellent look at tactics (or lack thereof), the stress of command, and the mentalities of the men who lived at that time. Knowing the outcome from history classes doesn't diminish the force of the conclusion; my heart ached for my favorite characters and I found myself almost wishing things had turned out differently for them.

My favorites of the bunch were the Confederate General Longstreet, who was Robert E. Lee's second in command, and Union Colonel Chamberlain, who was the first on the scene at Gettysburg and secured the high ground (and thus the advantage) for the North. Longstreet spends much of the novel advising Lee to pursue a defensive strategy by circling behind the Union army; his recommendations are heard but dismissed for more offensive attacks. It's impossible not to imagine how Gettysburg might have ended differently had Longstreet been in charge; still, Lee is endlessly sympathetic in the book, being ill and exhausted and yet so quietly reassuring to his men. Chamberlain, on the other side, has the unenviable position of holding the high ground against the first attack until reinforcements arrive, holding the leftmost flank against a charge wherein he is outnumbered at least ten to one, and, on being relieved of the left flank as a reward, ends up smack dab in the middle of the final Rebel assault. Seriously. This poor dude.

Though I appreciated that the novel paid particular attention to strategy and deployments - the novel is interspersed with dead-useful maps detailing troop positions and movements at various times during the three days - at a certain point I began to think that telling the novel solely through the eyes of command staff was limiting. The commanders typically issued orders to their troops and sat back to watch the result, which means for the first half of the book, there's no one to really express the horror of the battlefield or the gravity of losses on both sides. The generals think in terms of regiments, not lives; there was no perspective from ON the battlefield. It just didn't have the gristle I was wanting, nor the immediacy. But then the second half of the book happened, and I changed my mind.  ;)

As it went on, I thought the book did a better job of weaving in the experience of the common soldier. In this quote, Colonel Chamberlain is walking among his men before a battle:
Jim and Bill Merrill, two brothers, were standing next to a sapling. Chamberlain frowned.
"Boys, why aren't you dug in?"
Jim, the older, grinned widely, tightly, scared but proud.
"Sir, I can't shoot worth a damn lying down. Never could. Nor Bill either. Like to fight standin', with the Colonel's permission."
"Then I suggest you find a thicker tree."
He moved on. Private George Washington Buck, former sergeant, had a place to himself, wedged between two rocks. His face was cold and grey. Chamberlain asked him how it was going. Buck said, "Keep an eye on me, sir. I'm about to get them stripes back."
I do have a quibble with the writing style, however, and it was irksome enough to me to bring the book's rating from a 3.5 down to the 3. Shaara doesn't distinguish between the inner thought patterns of his characters, and thus they all sound the same. This mightn't be a problem for me, except they're all so distinctly and annoyingly similar (this is Chamberlain, but could be any of them):
Don't like to wait. Let's get on, get on. But his mind said cheerily, coldly: Be patient, friend, be patient. You are not leaving here... My, how the mind does chatter at times like this. Stop thinking. Depart in a chariot of fire. I suppose it's possible. That He is waiting. Well. May well find out.
It makes. It sound. Like all the generals. Are suffering. From sunstroke.

Despite this, even if you're not interested in the military or war novels, this book is worth the read. I emerged from it with a much better picture in my mind of how the Civil War was perceived at the time by both sides (it's amusing to switch from one side to the other: the Rebels are constantly pouting that the North is making a war over states' rights into a conflict over slavery, while the Union are all over there not really thinking about slavery at all. Oops). I found all the main characters interesting and sympathetic, and the final section of the book, in which Shaara writes up short summaries of what happened to each officer after Gettysburg, was very welcome, and even heartwarming. I'll leave it at that with one final quotation:
Chamberlain closed his eyes and saw it again. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. No book or music would have that beauty. He did not understand it: a mile of men flowing slowly, steadily, inevitably up the long green ground, dying all the while, coming to kill you, and the shell bursts appearing above them like instant white flowers, and the flags all tipping and fluttering, and dimly you could hear the music and the drums, and then you could hear the officers screaming, and yet even above your own fear came the sensation of unspeakable beauty.

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