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07 September 2015

Book Review: The Killer Angels

The Killer AngelsThe Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 I've never liked historical fiction; putting words and actions into people who have become icons of history. Imagining conversations and personalities. Molding happenings just a little to fit your narrative line. Shaara does all of this in The Killer Angels. The two most egregious maybe/maybe nots; Did Chamberlain really order the bayonet charge on Little Round Top? Did Longstreet really disagree with Lee ordering Picket's Charge? No historian I've found seems to be sure of the real truth. But Shaara has written it thusly. Then they made a movie out of it. So now it has become true. But is it? No way of knowing.

And the problem with questioning some of the history in this book is that it makes you question all of the history, which makes it readable but impossible to trust.

And readable it was, for sure. It made me want to visit Gettysburg and look at the terrain (I have a horrible time envisioning things like troop movements, despite the many maps Shaara included) It made me want to fine a history of the battle and read it. It made me want to know more about Longstreet and the Mexican War. So as a jumping-off point for learning more about history, this was a good book.

But it's not a history. It's a fiction.

Which makes one of the most revelatory things about it just as questionable as the rest of it.

Like when Fremantle, a British Army officer who rides with the Confederates to observe, thinks;

"The great experiment. In democracy. The equality of rabble. In not much more than a generation they have come back to class. As the French have done. What a tragic thing, that Revolution. Bloody George was a bloody fool. But no matter. The experiment doesn't work. Give them fifty years, and all that equality rot is gone. Here [the South] they have the same love of the land and of tradition, of the right form, of breeding, in their horses, their women. Of course slavery is a bit embarrassing, but that, of course, will go. But the point is they do it all exactly as we do in Europe. And the North does not. That's what the war is really about. The North has those huge bloody cities and a thousand religions, and the only aristocracy is the aristocracy of wealth. The Northerner doesn't give a damn for tradition, or breeding, or the Old Country. He hates the Old Country. Odd. you very rarely hear a Southerner refer to "the Old Country." In that painted way a German does. Or an Italian. Well, of course, the south is the Old Country. They haven't left Europe. They've merely transplanted it. And that's what the war is about."

This is a pretty brilliant angle. And one I'd never seen expounded on so clearly before. But because Shaara put it in the thoughts of a real person in history, without telling the reader whether or not these thoughts had been expressed in a letter or a memoir written by said real person in history, makes it less brilliant, somehow. Perhaps I'm splitting hairs, but I'd rather this sentiment be placed squarely in a fictional observer. Or I'd rather Shaara footnote the original source, if such a thing exists.

Just like when Longstreet, a Confederate general, thinks, "The war was about slavery, all right. That was not why Longstreet fought but that was what the war was about, and there was no point in talking about it, never had been."

Did he really think that? Did most of those fighting for the Confederacy think that way? Engage in that kind of massive cognitive dissonance?

I had the same reaction when Robert E. Lee is credited with the following thoughts;
"When Virginia left the Union she bore his home away as surely as if she were a ship setting out to sea, and what was left behind on the shore was not his any more. So it was no cause and no country he fought for, no ideal and no justice. He fought for his people, for the children and the kin, and not even the land, because not even the land was worth the war, but the people were, wrong as they were, insane even as many of them were, they were his own, he belonged with his own. And so he took up arms wilfully, knowingly, in perhaps the wrong cause against his own sacred oath and stood now upon alien ground he had once sworn to defend, sworn in honor, and he had arrived there really in the hands of God, without any choice at all"

Or when Chamberlain is credited with these words of wisdom;
"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."

I had to put down my book for several moments and let that one sink in. Because it's the best description of tragedy I've ever come across. Is it weakened by the fact that it was put in the thoughts of a real person without any provenance? No. And yes.

I shouldn't read historical fiction. But I'm damn glad I read this one, if only for that quote.

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