22. The Killer Angels: Michael Schaara

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22. The Killer Angels: Michael Schaara

Post  Patguy on Sat Dec 19, 2009 12:56 am

“So this is tragedy. Yes. He nodded. In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.”

Michael Shaara’s famous novel about the battle of Gettysburg, later made into the film Gettysburg. This is quite a good novel, somewhat marred by a slightly clichéd prose style. As I understand it, Schaara was primarily a pulp sci-fi writer before he decided to branch into historical fiction, and the transition is a little awkward. That said, in all other ways this book is terrific, and I know of no other novel that so believably recreates the personalities of the officers at Gettysburg.

The chapters are divided between several POVs: Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, John Buford and several others, and the action begins a few days before the battle and ends with the Confederate defeat on the Third Day. Throughout, Schaara imbues all of these long-dead men with individual character and interest. Chamberlain, a former schoolteacher, is pedagogical when speaking with his men. Longstreet, a talented general with advanced ideas about defensive war, is trapped between his own strategic understanding and his admiration and loyalty to Lee, whose rash tactics eventuate the South’s defeat.

Anyone interested in Gettysburg at all owes it to him- or herself to read Schaara’s Foreword to this novel, in which he outlines the situation in June 1863 and the personalities of the officers at Gettysburg in a half-dozen pages of masterfully compressed prose. Shaara never rises to this level again, but these few pages are as good as anything I’ve ever read about these men.

Also, maps. You can’t understand a major battle like Gettysburg without maps, and Schaara helpfully supplies eighteen of them, depicting the order of battle at many different points over the three days. For these several days, the ruling fact of these men’s lives were the placement of the various armies, and it’s impossible to understand what they thought or felt without understanding the tactical situation. Schaara has written a psychological novel told through the medium of military history.

“Mr. Mason: How do you justify your acts?
“John Brown: I think, my friend, you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity—I say it without wishing to be offensive—and it would be perfectly right for anyone to interfere with you so far as to free those you willfully and wickedly hold in bondage. I do not say this insultingly.
“Mr. Mason: I understand that.”
--from an interview with John Brown after his capture

Patguy
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