Michael Shaara: The Killer Angels (1974) Literature and War Readalong February 2014

The Killer Angels

Books are not always the way we expect them to be. Still, I’ve only rarely been this wrong. I was afraid Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winner would be dry, heavy on tactics and military jargon. It wouldn’t have been too surprising if it had been like that, after all, Shaara tells the story of the three-day battle at Gettysburg. But The Killer Angels is anything but dry or heavy. It’s a beautiful, lyrical novel, which focusses much more on the moods and emotions of the main characters than on tactics.

I liked the way this was told. We have seven different POVs, each chapter told by another person. That way the narrative constantly  switches from the Confederate Army to the Union Army. On the Union side we have Chamberlain and Buford, on the Confederate side we have the POVs of Lee, Longstreet, Fremantle, Armistead and a spy.

Gettysburg is said to have been the decisive battle. It was lost by the Confederate Army who had been mostly victorious so far. The way Shaara tells this, I got the impression that the defeat was due to a large extent to General Lee’s unfortunate belief in assault warfare. His second in command, Longstreet, cautions against it, but to no avail. It seemed that while Lee was one of the most beloved Generals, he was very old-school in his tactics. Longstreet wanted to be defensive and was proven right in the end. The battle cost the lives of numerous soldiers, many officers and many, many horses.

The amazing thing in this novel is that Shaara writes so well about moods and emotions. We see the men mostly before or after the battle. The way they experience life in the army, the apprehension and exhilaration before the fight. How they experience the weather, the other men. Politics are present but in the background. Everyone on both sides thinks it’s about slavery but we come to realize that it’s not. Slavery is a symbol for a way of life. In a way it’s a battle of change versus tradition. I never really saw it that way. And the book made me understand why the South fought. They were scared to lose their way of life. If they had known how to stay the way they were – big plantations, old money, traditions – without slavery, maybe they wouldn’t have minded so much. And they certainly didn’t like being told how to live. Fremantle is an interesting character, because he’s a British journalist and the way he compares the South to Britain is interesting and sheds light on many aspects.

I’m certainly no expert on tactics but I was wondering whether the terrain wasn’t to some extent responsible for the defeat.

While I liked this book a geat deal, I have one reservation. I had to check up on Shaara because the way this was written, how it glorifies some aspects, made me think that, while familiar with life in the military, Shaara doesn’t sound like someone who has seen action. And I was right. He served before the war in Korea but not during the war.

I will leave you with three quotes, which capture the mood of this book.

Chamberlain on his own

Isn’t that amazing? Long marches and no rest, up very early in the morning and asleep late in the rain, and there’s a marvelous excitement to it, a joy to wake in the morning and feel the army all around you and see the campfires in the morning and smell the coffee . . .

Lee on his own

The night air was soft and warm. Across the road there were still many fires in the field but no more bands, no more singing. Men sat in quiet groups, talking the long slow talk of night in camp at war; many had gone to sleep: There were stars in the sky and a gorgeous white moon. The moon shone on the white cupola of the seminary across the road – lovely view, good place to see the fight.

Chamberlain again – in a crucial scene that explains the title of the book.

Once Chamberlain had a speech memorized from Shakespeare and gave it proudly, the old man listening but not looking, and Chamberlain remembered it still: “What a piece of work is man . . . in action how like an angel!” And the old man, grinning, had scratched his head and then said stiffly, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.” And Chamberlain had gone on to school to make an oration on the subject: Man, the Killer Angel.

I don’t know what other books the year will bring, but I have a feeling this one could make it on the Best of List. I love books which are rich in atmosphere, capture quiet, introspective moods and manage to bring the most different characters to life. I certainly didn’t expect to find all that in a war novel. The Killer Angels is a gorgeous book on an awful subject, reading it felt like seeing all the major participants of the battle during their most intimate moments. I’m grateful to Kevin who said I would be missing out, if I didn’t read it. He was right.

Other reviews

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The Killer Angels is the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the American Civil War novel  March by Geraldine Brooks. Discussion starts on Monday 31 March, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong February 28 2014: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

The Killer Angels

Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels is certainly one of the most famous novels about the American Civil War. Or rather about the decisive battle of Gettysburg that cost 50,000 lives. As far as I’m informed this was the battle that changed everything. While the Confederates were less numerous, they still won most battles so far. Gettysburg would change all that. I’m interested to see whether I will like a book that focuses on one battle only.

A few years back I saw the TV mini-series Gettysburg, which is based on this novel. It’s quite long but I enjoyed watching it and might rewatch it this month. It has a great cast: Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Sam Elliott

Here are the first sentences of the novel

He rode into the dark of the woods and dismounted. He crawled upward on his belly over cool rocks out into the sunlight, and suddenly he was in the open and he could see for miles, and there was the whole vast army below him, filling the valley like a smoking river. It came out of a blue rainstorm in the east and overflowed the narrow valley road, coiling along a stream, narrowing and choking at a white bridge, fading out into the yellowish dust of June but still visible on the farther road beyond the blue hills, spiked with flags and guidons like a great chopped bristly snake, the snake ending headless in a blue wall of summer rain.

And  some details and the blurb for those who want to join

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (US 1974), American Civil War, Novel, 355 pages

The late Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1974) concerns the battle of Gettysburg and was the basis for the 1993 film Gettysburg. The events immediately before and during the battle are seen through the eyes of Confederate Generals Lee, Longstreet, and Armistead and Federal General Buford, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, and a host of others. The author’s ability to convey the thoughts of men in war as well as their confusion-the so-called “fog of battle”-is outstanding. This unabridged version is read clearly by award-winning actor George Hearn, who gives each character a different voice and effectively conveys their personalities; chapters and beginnings and ends of sides are announced. Music from the movie version adds to the drama. All this comes in a beautiful package with a battle map. Recommended for public libraries not owning previous editions from Recorded Books and Blackstone Audio (Audio Reviews, LJ 2/1/92 and LJ 2/1/93, respectively).

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The discussion starts on Friday, 28 February 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2014

The Black FlowerThe Killer AngelsMarch

Toby's RoomPrivate PeacefulFear

Undertones of WarMy Dear I Wanted To Tell YouPhoenix and Ashes

The LieFlight Without EndLetters From a Lost Generation

The books for Literature and War Readalong 2011 and 2012 were following the different wars in chronological order. This year, 2013, we focused on different countries and wars we hadn’t covered so far. Next year will be about genre and WWI.

I was afraid a whole year dedicated to WWI books would be too much, especially since a lot of blogs run events for the Centenary, that’s why I decided to start with three novels on the American Civil War, one of which was part of 2011’s readalong, but had to be postponed. After that it’s all about WWI and to make it more interesting, I’ve included different genres: Memoir, letters, historical fiction, literary fiction, a children’s book and one fantasy novel. I hope there will be something for everyone among these titles.

The Black Flower

January, Friday 31 

The Black Flower by Howard Bahr (US 2000), American Civil War, Novel, 272 pages

The Black Flower is the gripping story of a young Confederate rifleman from Mississippi named Bushrod Carter, who serves in General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee during the Civil War battle that takes place in Franklin, Tennessee, in November 1864. Written with reverent attention to historical accuracy, the book vividly documents the fear, suffering, and intense friendships that are all present on the eve of the battle and during its aftermath. When Bushrod is wounded in the Confederate charge, he is taken to a makeshift hospital where he comes under the care of Anna, who has already lost two potential romances to battle. Bushrod and Anna’s poignant attempt to forge a bond of common humanity in the midst of the pathos and horror of battle serves as a powerful reminder that the war that divided America will not vanish quietly into the page of history.

The Killer Angels

February, Friday 28

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (US 1974), American Civil War, Novel, 355 pages

The late Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1974) concerns the battle of Gettysburg and was the basis for the 1993 film Gettysburg. The events immediately before and during the battle are seen through the eyes of Confederate Generals Lee, Longstreet, and Armistead and Federal General Buford, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, and a host of others. The author’s ability to convey the thoughts of men in war as well as their confusion-the so-called “fog of battle”-is outstanding. This unabridged version is read clearly by award-winning actor George Hearn, who gives each character a different voice and effectively conveys their personalities; chapters and beginnings and ends of sides are announced. Music from the movie version adds to the drama. All this comes in a beautiful package with a battle map. Recommended for public libraries not owning previous editions from Recorded Books and Blackstone Audio (Audio Reviews, LJ 2/1/92 and LJ 2/1/93, respectively).

March

March, Monday 31

March by Geraldine Brooks (Australia 2005) American Civil War, Novel, 304 pages

Brooks’s luminous second novel, after 2001’s acclaimed Year of Wonders, imagines the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. An idealistic Concord cleric, March becomes a Union chaplain and later finds himself assigned to be a teacher on a cotton plantation that employs freed slaves, or “contraband.” His narrative begins with cheerful letters home, but March gradually reveals to the reader what he does not to his family: the cruelty and racism of Northern and Southern soldiers, the violence and suffering he is powerless to prevent and his reunion with Grace, a beautiful, educated slave whom he met years earlier as a Connecticut peddler to the plantations. In between, we learn of March’s earlier life: his whirlwind courtship of quick-tempered Marmee, his friendship with Emerson and Thoreau and the surprising cause of his family’s genteel poverty. When a Confederate attack on the contraband farm lands March in a Washington hospital, sick with fever and guilt, the first-person narrative switches to Marmee, who describes a different version of the years past and an agonized reaction to the truth she uncovers about her husband’s life. Brooks, who based the character of March on Alcott’s transcendentalist father, Bronson, relies heavily on primary sources for both the Concord and wartime scenes; her characters speak with a convincing 19th-century formality, yet the narrative is always accessible. Through the shattered dreamer March, the passion and rage of Marmee and a host of achingly human minor characters, Brooks’s affecting, beautifully written novel drives home the intimate horrors and ironies of the Civil War and the difficulty of living honestly with the knowledge of human suffering.

Toby's Room

April, Monday 28

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker (UK 2013), WWI, Novel, 272 pages

Pat Barker returns to the First World War in Toby’s Room, a dark, compelling novel of human desire, wartime horror and the power of friendship.

When Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, another secret casts a lengthening shadow over Elinor’s world: how exactly did Toby die – and why? Elinor determines to uncover the truth. Only then can she finally close the door to Toby’s room. Moving from the Slade School of Art to Queen Mary’s Hospital, where surgery and art intersect in the rebuilding of the shattered faces of the wounded, Toby’s Room is a riveting drama of identity, damage, intimacy and loss. Toby’s Room is Pat Barker’s most powerful novel yet.

Private Peaceful

May, Friday 30

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (UK 2003)  WWI, Children’s Book, 192 pages

Heroism or cowardice? A stunning story of the First World War from a master storyteller.

Told in the voice of a young soldier, the story follows 24 hours in his life at the front during WW1, and captures his memories as he looks back over his life. Full of stunningly researched detail and engrossing atmosphere, the book leads to a dramatic and moving conclusion.

Both a love story and a deeply moving account of the horrors of the First World War, this book will reach everyone from 9 to 90.

Fear

June, Friday 27

FearLa Peur by Gabriel Chevallier (France 1930)  WWI, Classic, Novel, 320 pages

It is 1915. Jean Dartemont is just a young man. He is not a rebel, but neither is he awed by authority and when he’s called up and given only the most rudimentary training, he refuses to follow his platoon. Instead, he is sent to Artois, where he experiences the relentless death and violence of the trenches. His reprieve finally comes when he is wounded, evacuated and hospitalised.

The nurses consider it their duty to stimulate the soldiers’ fighting spirit, and so ask Jean what he did at the front.

His reply?

‘I was afraid.’

First published in France in 1930, Fear is both graphic and clear-eyed in its depiction of the terrible experiences of soldiers during the First World War.

The Lie

July, Monday 28

The Lie by Helen Dunmore (UK 2014) WWI, Novel, 304 pages

Set during and just after the First World War, The Lie is an enthralling, heart-wrenching novel of love, memory and devastating loss by one of the UK’s most acclaimed storytellers. Cornwall, 1920, early spring.

A young man stands on a headland, looking out to sea. He is back from the war, homeless and without family.

Behind him lie the mud, barbed-wire entanglements and terror of the trenches. Behind him is also the most intense relationship of his life.

Daniel has survived, but the horror and passion of the past seem more real than the quiet fields around him.

He is about to step into the unknown. But will he ever be able to escape the terrible, unforeseen consequences of a lie?

Undertones of War

August, Friday 29

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (UK 1928) WWI, Memoir, 288 pages

In what is one of the finest autobiographies to come out of the First World War, the distinguished poet Edmund Blunden records his experiences as an infantry subaltern in France and Flanders. Blunden took part in the disastrous battles of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, describing the latter as ‘murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes’. In his compassionate yet unsentimental prose, he tells of the heroism and despair found among the officers. Blunden’s poems show how he found hope in the natural landscape; the only thing that survives the terrible betrayal enacted in the Flanders fields.

My Dear I Wanted To Tell You

September, Monday 29

My Dear, I wanted to tell you by Louisa Young (UK 2011) WWI, Historical Fiction, 336 pages

A letter, two lovers, a terrible lie. In war, truth is only the first casualty. ‘Inspires the kind of devotion among its readers not seen since David Nicholls’ One Day’ The Times

While Riley Purefoy and Peter Locke fight for their country, their survival and their sanity in the trenches of Flanders, Nadine Waveney, Julia Locke and Rose Locke do what they can at home. Beautiful, obsessive Julia and gentle, eccentric Peter are married: each day Julia goes through rituals to prepare for her beloved husband’s return. Nadine and Riley, only eighteen when the war starts, and with problems of their own already, want above all to make promises – but how can they when the future is not in their hands? And Rose? Well, what did happen to the traditionally brought-up women who lost all hope of marriage, because all the young men were dead?

Moving between Ypres, London and Paris, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is a deeply affecting, moving and brilliant novel of love and war, and how they affect those left behind as well as those who fight.

Phoenix and Ashes

October, Friday 31

Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey (US 2004) WWI, Fantasy, 468 pages

In this dark and atmospheric rendition of the Cinderella fairy tale, an intelligent young Englishwoman is made into a virtual slave by her evil stepmother. Her only hope of rescue comes in the shape of a scarred World War I pilot of noble blood, whose own powers over the elements are about to be needed more than ever.

“A dark tale full of the pain and devastation of war…and a couple of wounded protagonists worth routing for.”

Flight Without End

November, Friday 28

Flight Witout End – Die Flucht ohne Ende by Joseph Roth (Austria 1927) WWI, Classic,  144 pages

Flight Without End, written in Paris, in 1927, is perhaps the most personal of Joseph Roth’s novels. Introduced by the author as the true account of his friend Franz Tunda it tells the story of a young ex-office of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the 1914- 1918 war, who makes his way back from captivity in Siberia and service with the Bolshevik army, only to find out that the old order, which has shaped him has crumbled and that there is no place for him in the new “European” culture that has taken its place. Everywhere – in his dealings with society, family, women – he finds himself an outsider, both attracted and repelled by the values of the old world, yet unable to accept the new ideologies.

Letters From a Lost Generation

December, Monday 29

Letters from a Lost Generation by Vera Brittain and Four Friends (UK) WWI, Letters, 448 pages

Nothing in the papers, not the most vivid and heart-rending descriptions, have made me realise war like your letters’ Vera Brittain to Roland Leighton, 17 April 1915.

This selection of letters, written between 1913 & 1918, between Vera Brittain and four young men – her fiance Roland Leighton, her brother Edward and their close friends Victor Richardson & Geoffrey Thurlow present a remarkable and profoundly moving portrait of five young people caught up in the cataclysm of total war.

Roland, ‘Monseigneur’, is the ‘leader’ & his letters most clearly trace the path leading from idealism to disillusionment. Edward, ‘ Immaculate of the Trenches’, was orderly & controlled, down even to his attire. Geoffrey, the ‘non-militarist at heart’ had not rushed to enlist but put aside his objections to the war for patriotism’s sake. Victor on the other hand, possessed a very sweet character and was known as ‘Father Confessor’. An important historical testimony telling a powerful story of idealism, disillusionment and personal tragedy.

I think the list is very different from the last years. The one or the other title like Mercedes Lackey’s book is a bit of gamble but I tried to make the list as diverse as possible.

I hope that many of you will join.