Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: The Killer Angels

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

In his introduction to the edition I read, Shaara’s son Jeff says that the novel’s origins date to a family trip they took to Gettysburg in 1964 for the centennial of the battle. The book grew out of Shaara’s impulse to tell the story to his family that day from the perspective of the different figures who lived it, and it gave birth to what may well be a new way of recounting history. It’s now been a half century since that family trip, and I have to hand it to Shaara – the method he developed is still effective, still capable of bringing some of the power of that history to life.

I’d go so far as to argue that Shaara, in effect, created the template for the fantastic history that underlies George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. That is, by carving a huge war story into smaller pieces – pieces framed by the perspective of a single participant – he gives the impression of a story larger than any one person could see and yet always connected to a human perspective.

There are probably some slow parts to all of this. It takes a while to establish some of the characters, and, since the novel presumes greater familiarity with the details of Gettysburg than most of us educated in the last 40 years have, some of the foreshadowing either misses the mark or seems heavy-handed.

But none of those age spots really dim the accomplishment here. There really is something thrilling about the combat. No one is ever allowed to be a true villain, and few of the heroes on either side escape without some blemishes. It celebrates the men who fought in the war more than it champions any particular cause and, in a small way, it serves as a belated effort at Reconstruction – a way of imagining a past usable by both the North and the South to make sense of a united future.

I’m not quite sure that each of these characters assumes the dimensions of a fully realized character, but there’s no question that Shaara gives us different ways of thinking about the same conflict. Whether it’s a matter of States Rights as an extension of the original Revolutionary impulse or the notion that freedom for any depends on freedom for all, it is always a matter of recognizing the importance of courage and level-headedness in impossible circumstances.

And it’s also at times a dramatic, even riveting story. The account of Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top had me at the edge of my seat. It was action as thrilling as anything you’ll find in Game of Thrones but it was even more rewarding for being a reflection of genuine history.

I know there have been some well-regarded films to grow out of Shaara’s work (and that his son has continued the family tradition, applying the same literary method to other periods of American military history), and I intend to explore them. This seems a terrific place to start with all of that, though, with a new way to see history that Shaara came up with 50 years ago himself.

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