June 6, 2010

The Civil War Books of Jeff Shaara

It never ceases to amaze me how people can only read a book through once. As hard to believe as it sounds, I know such people exist, because my mother is one of them.  She used to question why on earth my sisters and I would want to buy a book we've already read, now I think she just shakes her head in bewildered resignation.

But with a good book, a truly good book, once through is just not enough.  No matter how many times I re-read my favorites, something new always jumps out at me.  I always close the cover with some revelation that I had not realized before.  A new perspective, new symbolism, new insight into the characters.  Sometime it's a slight gain, sometimes I sit back and go "Wow!  I never knew that!"; it's like a whole new book.

I have been reading to beloved old favorites of mine lately, and so I thought I would take the opportunity to share them with you.   They are "Gods and Generals" and "The Last Full Measure".  Written by Jeff Shaara, son of author Michael Shaara ["Killer Angels"], they complete the tale of the Civil War that "Killer Angels" began.

As much as I love them and want other to read them, I am afraid that they will be... unappealing to the casual reader who is just prowling about for a fast paced, action packed, adventure novel to read.  These books are certainly action packed - I mean, it's the Civil War and therefore it would follow that there be battles and action - but the pace does drag a bit in between the battles, while Shaara gives a narrative of the armies movements - or non-movement, as the case may be.

Yet Shaara makes up for those lulls in the story by bringing the characters of history vividly to life.  By the time you reach only the half-way point, you feel like you know these people, that you could look up from reading and they'd be standing there across the room from you.  That is what made me fall in love with these works of historical fiction, and that is why I read them over and over again.

I'm not shy about saying that I would not be the lover of Civil War history that I am today if it were not for the Shaara's Civil War books, "Gods and Generals" in particular.  I read "Killer Angels" first, and liked it, but it wasn't until I saw the movies "Gods and Generals" and "Gettysburg" [the film version of 'Killer Angels'], directed by Ron Maxwell that I fell in love with them.  I ran and borrowed the book "Gods and Generals" from the library and fell further in love still.  They opened my eyes to a period in American history that I had glossed over before.  I met great and heroic men that I otherwise never would have met, or maybe never even really heard about.

Another, slightly trivial, reason why I love reading these books (and the reason why I prefer reading them over "Killer Angels") is Jeff Shaara's writing style.  All authors have their own writing style, of course, but I've never read anyone else who had a style quite like Shaara's.  I've given it quite a bit of thought, and I think the reason why it is different is because it just flows... the words come out naturally, particularly the dialogue.  Actually, now that I think about it, it is the dialogue that makes it unique.  When the characters speak, think, Shaara puts pauses in their sentences, natural pauses.
I suppose the best way to describe it would be to quote the book.  (Hang on while I try and pick just one paragraph...)                                                                                              

He let go of the flag and fell forward, his hands in the mud, and now there were hands under his arms, lifting him up, pulling him back.  He looked at the faces of the young men staring down at him, said "Thank you... I am shot."
He tried to see across the creek, to sit up, but there was no strength, and he looked again at his side, thought, Too much... too much blood... you are dying.

So maybe this whole discussion is irrelevant to a review, but hey, aren't reviews about what the reviewer thinks of the book?  So yes, his style is... very unique.  Actually, it's so unique it is can be quite annoying, because by the time I've read a quarter of the book, Shaara's style of narrating, talking, thinking is so ingrained in my sub-cranium that I start narrating my thoughts.  No, not only do I start to write everything Shaara style, I start to think Shaara style.  My thoughts go into third person!  It is... annoying.  (That last sentence was my exact thought when I was thinking about not thinking in Shaara style.  It didn't work.)

I should note that a less than desirable side-effect of thinking in Shaara is that all the 'd--ms' jump in every once in a while as well.  But lest you be concerned that I am hiding something from you in my review, d--m is the only swearing in the book.

Going back to my opening statement, about seeing things in a new light or gleaning something new... I think that this time through, what I got out of them the most was a greater empathy for the emotions of the main characters.  I could understand better how frustrated General Hancock was when the commanders of his army just wouldn't move, would give pointless orders, or would run away when they didn't need to.  I felt a greater understanding of the loss the Confederates took when Jackson died, what that meant to the army, what it meant to Lee.  I was able to grasp the shock of Stuart's death, wondering myself how he could just - be killed.  When Chamberlain was promoted to Brigadier General, I knew some of the excitement he must have felt, because I couldn't keep the smile off of my own face.  This time through, these people became even more real to me and more beloved, and I hadn't known that was possible.

So that is my love story with Jeff Shaara's Civil War books.  The next time you are looking for a good, solid, meaningful read, read Shaara.  It's so cool and satisfying to read a novel, and for once, you don't have to wish that the characters were real, because they are.

Now I could leave you with that last paragraph, which makes a veddy good closing paragraph if I do say so myself... but I just have to tell you about something that happened to me this past week, while I was in the depths of "Gods and Generals".  This will attest to 1) the overpowering power of Jeff Shaara's narrative style and 2) my own delicious insanity.
Setting: I was making sweet tea to have with dinner, and I was pouring it into a larger pitcher, these words popped into my head unexpected and unbidden...
(Note, this was my thought, word for word).

"The dark brown liquid flowed out, clear and strong.  She placed the spoon in the pitcher, stirred it around in a swirl."

I promptly hit myself in the head and laughed for about five minutes... then kept thinking in Shaara.


  1. Jo D'AubigneJune 6, 2010 at 8:49 PM

    Oh man, you are too funny! Yes, and delicously insane! Love the sweet tea thing...kind of like how I talk to myself OUT LOUD when I'm driving in the car alone. Haha!

    But yes, these are simply marvelous books!

    I also would add that I am like you in that I love rereading books, because you get so much more out of them, I can just never seem to find the time! There are so many books I want to read and haven't, that I rarely get to rereads. But this series and LOTR are on my reread list this summer. So hopefully... ;-)


  2. "The dark brown liquid flowed out, clear and strong. She placed the spoon in the pitcher, stirred it around in a swirl."

    that made me laugh REALLY hard!!

  3. I like Shaara's writing style as well. I think it makes the characters come alive. Have you read his Revolutionary War books? It is one of my favorite periods of history and his books helped me to understand the British side of the story better.


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