Battle of the books

Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters

3 words: classic, honest, human

So
much for my Top 10 list.
This
book has shoved The Killer Angels right
off the pile. I thought it couldn’t be done.
The
Dear Man’s dear dad gave me a copy of this book when he learned that I was a
Gettysburg fanatic.
When I
saw the Booklist blurb on the cover
that said, “Surpasses Michael Shaara’s classic The Killer Angels,” I was like, yeah, right.
Then I
read it.
And
the gritty realism of this novel makes the Civil War seem nearer than anything
I’ve ever read or seen. It made me want to revisit Gettysburg with new eyes.
The
thing I loved about The Killer Angels is
the way it portrayed the soldiers and generals as actual human beings. The
writing isn’t half bad, either. But its focus is on the people, not the
landmarks or the ammunition or the strategy.
The
same is true with this book, only more so. The people are more flawed and
realistic. Peters puts blood in their veins, and he puts blood on the
battlefield.
(photo by Alexander Gardner; courtesy of the Library of Congress)
During
the battle scenes (oh, the battle scenes! I could read them only in sort
spurts—they were overwhelming to experience otherwise) I felt like I could see
and hear and smell and feel what was happening. There were moments when I
moaned out loud at something a soldier experienced. 

I was reading with my mouth
open in wonder.

There
are short paragraphs that build suspense to an almost unbearable level,
accomplishing this effect with a severe economy of words.
“The
Confederate barrage slackened, then stopped abruptly. Freshly arrived Union
batteries sent their shells into the smoke, but the Rebel gunners resisted the
urge to reply.
Meade
understood. They were coming. Then he heard a distant Rebel yell.” (p. 257)
Peters
hits all the bases here: North and South, rank-and-file and generals, the noble
and the cowardly, the old guard and recent immigrants, the righteous and the
profane, the wise and the foolhardy, the young and the old.
Peters
is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, so he knows military matters. But the guy
also can write with the best of them. For years now he’s been writing the Abel
Jones Civil War mystery series under the pseudonym Owen Parry, but this novel
feels like it’s the book he was born to write.
And
the best thing is this: When I was sad to turn the last page of the epilogue, I
found these words in the Author’s Note: “The
Killer Angels
will remain the most beloved Gettysburg novel. Michael
Shaara’s skillful writing, mythic portraits, and romantic view of the battle
make it incomparable.” (p. 425) He goes on to describe how Shaara’s book was
perfectly matched to the mid-1970s, when it was necessary to restore regard for
the military.
But,
he goes on, “It demeans the heroes of Gettysburg to depict them as flawless
saints. Not one was cut from marble in the womb. Imperfect men fought an
imperfect battle and so preserved ‘a more perfect union’ or all. Heroes are men
who overcome themselves.” (p. 426)
The
grace with which he credits The Killer Angels
and also explains his own novel’s approach makes me happy that Peters took
up his pen when he put down his sword. He’s given us a new masterpiece, and
he’s done so while upholding the dignity of its predecessor. 
This is the real
deal here, guys.

by

Reader, librarian, & happy little geek

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