I am a longstanding fan of Jeff Shaara’s. I see occasional criticism of his work that sometimes approaches hysteria, and frankly, I don’t get it. Like his Pulitzer-winning father before him, Shaara uses a combination of extensive knowledge of the war; a fertile imagination; and considerable writing skill to turn America’s most pivotal war into stories. Story, in turn, is a tremendously effective vehicle for teaching about history.
At this point, I should mention that I got my copy courtesy of the Goodreads First Reads program; my thanks go to the publisher. This copy will hold a place of pride in my personal library, alongside the other books of Shaara’s that were given me as gifts or purchased outright for full jacket price. Is it worth full price? I say yes, with this qualification. It’s worth it if you have a serious interest in the American Civil War, and if you are open to reading historical fiction. It’s so named because any time one takes the known facts and adds dialogue, or inner dialogue, presuming to know the thoughts of historical characters, then of course part of it is made up. If you can’t live with that, either stick to nonfiction or go away.
Interest in the Civil War is key here because nobody can turn the battle of Shiloh into a fun read. It isn’t a fun subject. It was tragic. So if you want a fluffy beach read, this book isn’t that.
I was somewhat surprised to note that my own Goodreads shelves had listed this book as read by me, and the rating as 4 stars. I think it may have been an error, because I usually write a review, even if the book wasn’t free to me. However, another possibility exists: if I read it on the e-reader I owned when this book was first published in 2012, a reader now moribund so I can’t go in and check, it might have negatively influenced my perspective. Don’t read this book on your e-reader! You need to be able to see the maps, which are pivotal to understanding the action as Shaara describes it. If you didn’t need it, the author and publishers would not have devoted the space to it. I flipped back a few times to give those maps a second and third glance as I was reading. I do love my (new) e-reader and I use it a lot, but when possible, I read military history and historical fiction on paper. It’s more effective.
When I taught American history, I always kept some of Shaara’s other work on my classroom shelves. Fiction is often more accessible to students who have come to believe that history is a meaningless list of names, places, and dates. When story is used, the reader comes to understand that what took place involved real human beings and sometimes, they even recognize that their lives today might be different from what they are if things had unfolded differently back then. And had I not read Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, I might not have decided to read The Battle Cry of Freedom, the Pulitzer winning nonfiction tome by McPherson. I found this was also true of my students, that fiction was often a necessary conduit that made them more willing to read nonfiction on the same topic. And once that bridge is crossed, it doesn’t matter that there was no actual soldier named Bauer who did the things Jeff Shaara’s foot soldier did.
This brings me to the last thing I want to say about this well researched, carefully crafted book. Is a writer of strong historical fiction bound to include only real players in the story he reels out before us? Of course not. It’s fiction; he can write anything he wants to.
Well then, if he invents a character and gives him as much breath and life as the others, who were real, is his writing unworthy of our time and attention? I stand by the writer in this case. There were so many fresh-faced young soldiers out there who won no permanent place in our nation’s history. The working class, the lowest on the totem pole, are often disenfranchised by the fact that their history goes unwritten. For Shaara to create a single character to show that these men are not forgotten is gutsy and laudable. While leadership was critical to winning the war, it’s very important not to forget all those unknown boys and men who marched, slept in the rain and the mud, and sometimes died of dysentery before the next day’s march began. Others can say what they wish, but I really appreciate what Shaara has done in helping us remember the common soldier.
The more good historical fiction I read, the more I am inspired to read more of McPherson, Sears, and Catton. The Shaaras inspired me to read the memoirs of Grant and Sherman; I have a biography of Stonewall Jackson as my next-in-line galley. But the more I read of these masters of nonfiction, the more credible Shaara’s work looks to me.
Again, is this worth your bookstore dollars, or is it something only to be read free or cheap? If you have a strong interest in both historical fiction and the battle of Shiloh, there’s nothing better. Buy the book and read it; if you have to pay the full cover price, do it. It’s a worthwhile investment, and maybe some young person in your life will be inspired to borrow it. What could be more important?