Friday, January 26, 2018

UnForgotten Books: THE KILLER ANGELS by Michael Shaara (1974)

I like battlefields. One of the coolest places I've ever been is the site of the Battle of Hastings, where the Norman conquest of England began in 1066. So in planning a trip to Washington DC later this year, a side trip to Gettysburg is high on my list. Near as I can tell, we can ride the Metro up to Rockville MD, rent a car and proceed a short ways to the battlefield, where we can hire an official guide to ride around with us and tell us what's what. 

To get in the mood, I finally got around to reading this book, which has been highly recommended from various sources. Most impressive to me were the raves from Kassandra Kelly and Jackie Blain, two fine writers who don't normally read this sort of thing. If those two liked it, I knew it had to be good. And sure enough, it is.

The Foreward, I confess, was a bit daunting, introducing fourteen of the major commanders involved in the action. I read it twice and still thought, Jeez, I'm supposed to remember all this stuff? But as the story began, all that character info came into play. Each of those major players had long sections in close point of view, and the Foreword proved to be a very useful setting of the stage. 

The novel is recommended by historians as a good introduction to the battle, and I can surely see why. 

Shaara takes us deep into the mind and soul of each commander, so we see events unfolding through their eyes. And not only see, but feel what it's like to be there at that time and place, among those other men, and experience the major engagements of the three-day battle.

At the same time, the author manages to paint the landscape so clearly that I could picture the ground and follow troop movements even without maps. (The print edition does have maps, which I peeked at occasionally, but I was alternating between audio and ebook, where the maps are either invisible or too tiny to see.)

In my experience, nobody writes better battle scenes than Bernard Cornwell, but his are rarely in such close POV, so this was a special experience.

The book, published in 1974, did not sell well, so the first edition (black cover, at right) now commands between several hundred and several thousand dollars. Ouch. I want one, but not that bad.

I'll be following up with the Turner-produced film Gettysburg (based on the novel) and a couple true histories of the battle, and hope I enjoy them half as much. 

Sadly, this was Michael Shaara's only novel. Since his death, his son Jeff has written several other Civil War and other war novels, and seems to be very popular. But is he as good? It would be nice to think so.


Todd Mason said...

Shaara wrote several other novels. His boxing novel THE BROKEN PLACE, his sf novel THE HERALD, and a standalone baseball novella, FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME. As you mention, TKA didn't sell very well at first, and then didn't even take off at once after winning the Pulitzer; Shaara had a pretty unrewarding life, and his writing career was stymied considerably by a road accident which left him impaired, and with difficulty concentrating. Managed to get LOVE finished over a very long time. Was dead before TKA became a classroom staple.

Anonymous said...

As a history buff I consider Jeff Shaara's novels worth reading. I especially liked his Revolutionary War, Mexican War and World War I novels--they provide a good factual background as a basis for further study. In the first book of Jeff's Civil War trilogy, about the Battle of Shiloh, I thought I spotted some relatively minor errors in details about army equipment and such (although I'm no expert, and I could be wrong), but it was still worth reading and it helped me understand the course of the battle. For fact-based Civil War novels, however, you can't beat Ralph Peters. That includes the historical novels written under his own name, and also the Civil War mystery/suspense novels that he wrote as Owen Parry.

Evan Lewis said...

Hadn't heard of Ralph Peters, but I'll check him out. Thanks!

Todd Mason said...

FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME was also filmed, as you probably remember.

Todd Mason said...

Michael Shaara's THE HERALD was revised later on and re-published as THE NOAH CONSPIRACY.

Cap'n Bob said...

I also read and recommended TKA. I read a couple of the Owen Perry books, too, which I found to be very enjoyable. You can check your back issues of OWLHOOT for more on this topic.

Shay said...

On the way up (or back), swing by Antietam.