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The Killer Angels: A Novel by Michael Shaara, Book Review Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1409

Book Review

The Killer Angels, a novel by Michael Shaara completed in 1974, is a story of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War (June 29, 1863). It pictures the armies of the Union and the Confederacy moving into battle around the town of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and the battle itself. In 1975, the novel was awarded Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Not only has The Killer Angels become part of high school curriculum as a case study for Civil War, but it also serves as one of the two books of recommended reading for Officer Professional Development and is on the list of required reading at a number of military schools. Over the years, The Killer Angels have been capturing interest and hearts of both laypeople and military historians. Presumably, it means that the novel is significant as a document of military history. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s described the novel as “the best and most realistic historical novel about war that I have ever read.” In 1993, a screen version of the novel was released under the name Gettysberg. It is widely felt that the publication of the novel and the release of the movie have had a tangible influence on the perception of Civil War. On average, people have become much more aware of the actions of 20th Maine Infantry on Little Round Top. As a result, visitors to the Gettysburg Battlefield are now always eager to see the 20th Maine monument. An indirect consequence of the publication was revived interest to the memoirs of General James Longstreet – the book that was one of the prime sources of information for Shaara. This increased interest, in its turn, led to better attitude to General Longstreet himself, whose reputation was considerably damaged since 1870s by the Lost Cause writers (Jubal A. Early and others).

So to what extent can The Killer Angels be regarded as a layout of history or fiction?

First and foremost, to answer this question it seems reasonable to investigate the purpose of the author. Michael Shaara’s initial aim was to write a novel that would refute claims that the United States have “no sacred past”. Shaara wanted to personalize pages of books on history, to breathe life and passion into what surely used to have life and passion but risks losing it due to the distance in time and the boredom of history textbooks. He wanted the reader to identify with the characters, to see and feel what it was like on the battlefield of Gettysburg. The Killer Angels gives close shots of the events. As Shaara put it, he wanted to convey “what it was like to be there, what the weather was like, what men’s faces looked like.”

He leant back on a great number of memoirs and historic documents in his work. Of course, many historic figures were interpreted according to the rules and conventions of literature and there are also fictional characters in the novel, Shaara tried to stick “primarily to the words of the men themselves, their letters, and other documents.”

Technically, although he stayed within the historical record, he combined two literary methods: he gave an elaborate expository description of both strategy and tactics illustrated with a number of eloquent maps and a graphic schemes of the episodes of the battle themselves and also showed the details – seemingly insignificant happenings, emotions and pictures – all that really matters for human beings. In other words, the strategies of great leaders are intermingled with chance occurrences. The effect that is reached in this way  is to show that only rarely do strategies born in the heads of commanders determine the course of the war. In reality, the war is something that happens in blood, pain, smoke and chaos. In addition, such approach allows to show the people behind the events. Shaara was not a pioneer in this technique. For example, a classic of historical fiction Leo Tolstoy who pictured Napoleon versus the Russian army in 1812 had made the same point: it is not the strategies and plans that are a decisive factor in the war but rather the work of common people and the objective inevitability by which one army wins and the other is doomed to failure despite its better competence, conditions and preparation.

For example, here is an account of an episode in the battle by Chamberlain: “Awake all night in front of Fredericksburg. We attacked in the afternoon, just at dusk, and the stone wall was aflame from one end to the other, too much smoke, couldn’t see, the attack failed, couldn’t withdraw, lay there all night in the dark, in the cold among the wounded and dying. Piled-up bodies in front of you to catch the bullets, using the dead for a shield; remember the sound? Of bullets in dead bodies?… Remember the flap of a torn curtain in a blasted window, fragment-whispering in that awful breeze: never, forever, never, forever.”

In this fragment the impressionistic approach of Shaara is most obvious. We can see the confusion and terror in which the soldiers had to fight. Without the benefit of retrospect available to historians or of inventing strategies like their commanders, soldiers often fought without much awareness of the recommended pattern of the battle, the aims and the expected outcomes. Shaara shows it very eloquently.

In the opening note to the reader, Michael Shaara admits to having “condensed some of the action… eliminated some minor characters… had to choose between conflicting viewpoints.” Still, he states that he did not violate the course of events on purpose or consciously change the facts. Shaara mentions that he interpreted the characters on own, which is quite a normal thing to do for a writer and also his / her undeniable right.

As D. Scott Hartwig who wrote A Killer Angels Companion formulated the dichotomy between history and fiction, “Shaara’s story is told so well, his character portrayals so believable, that the unknowing reader might believe what they are reading is history.” However, the evidence of such historians as Donald C. Pfanz, Hartwig, Glenn Tucker, and others suggests that the novel is divorced from the real facts in a number of episodes.

The Killer Angels is written in an epic tone, which means that it is aimed at creating as objective a picture as possible. In my opinion, a great strength of Shaara’s is the fact that he does justice to both sides in the war. There are no really evil characters and the bad qualities and mistakes of people are not directly connected with their political views. I am a firm believer in the notion that it is impossible to create a good book without being humane and able to view the situation from various points. As a true writer, Shaara is propagates the best human qualities – tolerance, respect for other people, and love for life. When his character Chamberlain hears the opinion of his fellow professor who says that blacks are inferior or even not human, he is so outraged that he wants to kill the professor. However, he thinks, “I was really thinking of killing him, wiping him off the earth, and it was then I realized for the first time that if it was necessary to kill them, then I would kill them, and something at the same time said: you cannot be utterly right.” This moment of reasoning in which a person understands that aggression is still aggression no matter for what purpose and that he might not be completely right is invaluable. In fact, this idea can prevent not only personal conflicts, but also wars.

This objective approach reminds of one of the first examples of historical fiction – the Iliad by Homer. The great ancient Greek poet also seemed to have not been able to accuse one side and praise the other. He admired the heroes on both sides and bewailed the horror of the war itself.

Overall, although The Killer Angels cannot be viewed as a historical document or a textbook on the battle of Gettysburg, it has the power to revive the events of 1863 for us to feel what it was like. The humanistic approach to the problem of war and a person at war makes the novel a lesson to learn.

References

Hartwig, D.S.  A Killer Angels Companion. Thomas Publications (PA), 1996.

Shaara, M. The Killer Angels, Ballantine Books, 1987.

Smithpeters, J.  To the Latest Generation: Post Cold War Civil War Novels in Their Contemporary Contexts. Retrieved 8 May, 2009, from http://smithpeters_dis.pdf

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