The Frozen Hours, by Jeff Shaara****

thefrozenhours“’All right. They’re on our left. They’re on our right. They’re in front of us, they’re behind us. They can’t get away this time’.”


Fans of Jeff Shaara’s military historical fiction won’t have to wait much longer; with the ambitious rendering of the Chosin Reservoir battle during the Korean War, he’s taken a great leap forward. I received a DRC from Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, May 23, 2017.

Shaara makes military history accessible by breaking it down into small bites, and by choosing a reasonably representative group of historical figures to feature. One thing that has made him controversial, but which I admire and appreciate, is his decision to add at least one completely fictional character to each book in order to have the humble foot soldier, the ordinary joe that never gained fame or glory, represented. If Shaara chose to use the more traditional method, including only those actual servicemen that left a trail of records behind them, he would be telling us about the war solely from the point of view of officers. I am glad he has stuck to his guns—so to speak—because the rank and file make an enormous impact on the outcome of every battle in every war.

Approaching this story, it is key not to skip the preface or the afterword. This reviewer taught American history and government, and yet I learn something new every time I read one of Shaara’s books. One of the things I appreciate most is that it’s reasonably clear what is fact and what is fiction.

The war is basically a struggle over who will rule the Korean peninsula. Over the centuries, Japan, China, and various Western powers have had their eye on it; it is located in a way that gives its would-be colonizer wonderful access to a great many other places. Who wouldn’t want a military base there? And so as we commence, the Chinese, accompanied, at the outset, by the Soviet Union (now Russia), are determined to repel American incursion into the region. Shaara shows Koreans themselves as merely wishing everyone else would just leave, and although others would differ, this point of view serves well enough for the purpose of telling about this battle.

The US military troops here are commanded from afar; General MacArthur provides unreachable deadlines for the capture of hotly contested areas. At the outset of our story, he orders Marines and US Army shipped to North Korea and selects a inland line of march that he tells the press is a “pincer movement” but which in fact leaves vast amounts of unguarded areas between isolated groups of soldiers. They are high in treacherously cold mountains, where many men on both sides of the conflict will freeze to death or lose body parts to frostbite. They are surrounded and forced to fight their way out, then fight again to rescue their comrades.

There are two things I would change here if I could. The first is the maps. I blew them up on my tablet and still wasn’t able to read most of the print. They were better than nothing, but just barely. There isn’t even a compass provided to show where north is located.

The second is actually a pretty sore spot, and that is the constant use of nasty racist terms for every Asian mentioned ever. The Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese all get called more ugly names than I ever want to see again in my life! I understand that part of his point in doing so is to show how badly the American command underrated Mao’s forces. I also understand that Caucasian US troops did use racist language casually, and that dehumanizing the enemy is one more way to unify one’s own force and go out and kill people.

However, an author gets to choose his points of emphasis. In his many excellent Civil War novels, Shaara goes lightly around the N word, because he understands that it is painful and divisive, and that for many people, it will destroy the joy they might otherwise experience reading his work. It’s a tender place in our national consciousness. Yet the perception doesn’t hold when the people of color are Asian. It’s hard to take. Why add more nastiness than one must? Occasionally there is a lull where Chinese are called Chinese and Koreans are called Koreans, and I sink into the narrative as one does with strong fiction, only to have another epithet tossed in my face like cold water.

Perhaps it is because Asians are quieter, most times, about racism and stereotyping, that writers—Shaara is by no means alone in this, which is why only one star comes off—seem to think nothing of repeatedly slamming these horrifying terms at us again and again from within their pages. The references to the Japanese are obviously only there as—what do I call this, ambience? The Japanese are now allies of the US, but the J word gets sprinkled in anyway, and it’s a rotten thing to do.

There are nearly 7 million Asians of either Japanese, Korean, or Chinese ancestry living in the USA, and I have news: they read. And whereas I am undoubtedly more sensitive than some readers, given that we’re talking about my husband and my youngest child, I am not actually Asian myself. And there were moments here when I really felt that if I hadn’t committed to reading for the purpose of a review, I would prefer to leave the book unfinished, to slide it in the back somewhere and not really look at it anymore.

Shaara is an excellent writer, and his characters are almost tangible at times. With a little more sensitivity toward people of color, his work could be even better. This book is recommended to those that love historical military fiction, with the caveat just mentioned.

The Fateful Lightning, by Jeff Shaara *****

thefatefullightningThose that love strong Civil War fiction have to get this book. It comes out in June, but thanks to the wonderful people at Net Galley and Random House/Ballantine Publishers, I was able to sneak a peek ahead of time. Although it is the fourth in a series, it also works really well as a stand-alone novel if you know the basic facts regarding Sherman’s siege of Atlanta and its subsequent burning. As we join him and his hardened veterans fighting under Howard and Slocum, “the two fists that Sherman intended to drive through the heart of the deep South”, they prepare to march to the sea.

I have read every one of Shaara’s novels, those about the Civil War as well as the American Revolution and US war against Mexico. I am a fan. The last in the series, The Smoke at Dawn, left me hovering between a four and five star rating. It was a good read, yet I wasn’t sure I liked the way he voiced Sherman; I thought he made him sound a bit remote. But then it became evident that the controversy that sparked the indignation of other reviewers was his inclusion of one fictional character among the various perspectives presented (he flips back and forth, a format he uses regularly and that readers of his other work will recognize). The fictional character was invented to represent the too-often-voiceless rank and file, without whom the war would not have been fought or won. And I thought that this was actually a great idea, so I flipped from four to five stars in defense of his choice.

In this final installment, Sherman’s voice sounds much more real to me. I don’t know what happened, but it feels to me as if all the cylinders clicked into place. William T. Sherman is one of my heroes; I consider him America’s all time finest general, with Grant coming in second. He remains controversial to this day, mostly in the American South, so for those who wonder, the perspective definitely leans toward the Union, though both perspectives are given space. And it seems gobsmackingly obvious to me that in a war between feudalism and industrialization, between slavery and freedom, the latter should be the team to root for. But for those that feel differently, you’ve been warned.

Here we also meet a new fictional character named Franklin. Franklin is a slave until Sherman’s men come through. His father, an older man who was hobbled permanently by one of the master’s coon hounds when he attempted to flee, won’t leave the Plantation even after he hears that he is free. The master is gone, but it doesn’t matter. Walking is too hard, and frankly, he is also too afraid. And if someone were to sic a mean dog on me, I just might feel the same. But his son, Franklin, is grown, strong, and completely unafraid. He is allowed to join Sherman’s men as a laborer, and during a fight, he makes a heroic choice even though he has not been given a weapon or even permission to touch one. And the role that Black troops and spies also played is also included.

Throughout the narrative, Shaara’s voice feels authentic and honest to me. The reality of racist Caucasians within the Union’s forces is acknowledged, and the horrible crossing in which one of Sherman’s new, political generals causes the drowning of an unknown number of African-Americans trying to follow the army across a pontoon bridge that’s being withdrawn from enemy forces is not glossed over. More importantly, the slave breeding that brought international shame on the United States, a practice done exclusively here, in the “land of the free and home of the brave”, is presented; I can’t think of any other novelist I’ve read who includes this critical factor.

Fans of military history will appreciate Sherman’s approach to the war, that one cannot win by capturing the capitol of the rebellion, but rather, the Confederate forces must be defeated, and the people of the South that supported them had to know they were done. The desertions that marked the end days of the Confederate Army were the result of Sherman’s “juggernaut” through the South. Those that left home to fight to defend it, sometimes deserted for the very same reason. Home might not be safe; they might be needed back there. Shaara’s depiction of Sherman was consistent with Sherman’s memoir in this and every other regard.

In reading Shaara’s note to the reader, I felt a bit sorry for him, because it sounds as if every single Civil War buff has some treasured bit of arcane information or some hero in the family and they’re annoyed that Shaara has failed to include them. But this was one big war, and as the author notes, he can’t include everything. His publisher has set limits in terms of time and space. And Shaara has served them, and the memory of those who served the side of moral right, admirably.

The book will be sold in time for Father’s Day. But really, you should buy it for yourself. It’s worth every nickel.