Sunday, March 18, 2007

Recommended Reading from the Book Trout: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974)


One of my customers was recently shocked to discover that I had never read Michael Shaara's THE KILLER ANGELS and so it was consigned to the teetering biblio-tower on my nightstand, where it was housed for way too long. I like historical fiction, but not military history and felt that this novel about the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg might be a bit dry. Not so.

Shaara's writing is vivid, poetic and tinged with the tragic. The reader and the major characters know that thousands of men will suffer and die fighting in the hot several days running up to Fourth of July, a day formerly celebrated by all. We step inside the mind of General Robert E. Lee, struggling with his worsening heart disease and trying to remain upright, literally and morally, as he mulls battle strategies, all of which are imperfect. Shaara, also felled early by a heart attack, describes his "hollow, glassy heart" that stops beating and flips over when he thinks of the upcoming fight and of the mingled regrets and honors in leading the Confederate Army. We get inside the mind of Lee's hulking second in command, James Longstreet, his most trusted General since the death of Stonewall Jackson, and there is another complicated set of emotions and thoughts. Longstreet broods not only on the recent death of three of his children, but is conflicted between his devotion for Lee and his orders to direct the attack on the well-fortified, better ground of the Yankees. His character contrasts with the lovely General George Pickett, whose ringlets, perfume and unabashed acknowledgment of his last place standing in his West Point class would make him the comic relief in this drama were it not for his unswerving courage on the field of battle.

On the Union side, the characters are no less interesting, though historical hindsight does make them less tragic. The professorial General Joshua L. Chamberlain, leader of the decimated 20th Maine regiment, is the most engaging. Just before he is given the challenge of defending the key defensive position of Little Round Top against massive enemy forces, he gets the mixed blessing of 120 new troops who are sullen, mistreated mutineers from another Maine unit. Chamberlain's other concerns are complex. He thinks about the immediate safety of his younger brother Thomas, has dreamy reveries of his cozy, bookish family life, and startlingly-ambivalent(to him) thoughts about a wounded, runaway African-American slave who wanders into the Union camp just before battle.

This novel received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975 and is ranked highly in Robert Wooster's "The Civil War Bookshelf: Fifty Must-Read Books About the War Between the States" (NY: Citadel Press, 2001), among heaps of other accolades. I was surprised to enjoy this book so well and am pleased to offer it as the first recommendation of the Book Trout.

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