Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is this year’s St. Joseph County Public Library’s pick for One Book One Michiana. It is an excellent novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. You may be thinking, “I know what happened. I know who won. Why bother?”
Here is what makes it so engaging and why you should read it. First, there are many interesting aspects to the encounter that you probably don’t know. For example, have you ever heard of John Buford? He made a decision, before the fighting started, that may have been the single biggest factor in the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg.
In addition, Shaara uses a storytelling style called 3rd person subjective that creates suspense and an epic tone. This technique was often used often by Shakespeare in his dramatized accounts of history, such as in Julius Caesar and Richard II. Most books written in the 3rd person have an omniscient narrator who knows everything, including everyone’s thoughts. Sort of like Santa – sees all, knows all. With 3rd person subjective narration, used by Shaara, the narrator only knows his/her thoughts and what is going on around him or her.
Here is how it works. On the second day of the battle, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of Maine is ordered to occupy the southern side of Little Round Top Hill, which puts his men at the extreme left flank of the Union Army and under great pressure. “You cannot retreat under any circumstances!”
Robert E. Lee orders General Richard Ewell to capture Little Round Top for the Confederates. Shaara tells the story through the eyes of Chamberlain whose men are desperately trying to hold on. Chamberlain has no way of knowing which side is winning the other battles raging at the same time along the extensive front line. At a critical stage of the struggle, the Union soldiers find themselves almost out of ammunition. Chamberlain makes a decision that ultimately decides the outcome of the battle for Little Round Top. (No, I’m not going to tell you what it was).
Each chapter is a separate drama voiced by a character who only knows what is going on around him. Shaara used letters and memoirs to get a sense of each protagonist’s thoughts and moods as events unfolded.
Generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet tell the Confederate points of of view while Colonel Joshua Chamberlain is the main Union narrator. Thus, Sharra chooses two generals and a Colonel to tell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg. Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage who uses common soldiers to describe Civil War experiences. Both authors do excellent jobs while using different styles.
SJCPL is sponsoring no less than 40 events at its ten branches between April 1 and May 11. There is more than something for everyone. There are lots of things for everyone. You certainly can’t go wrong attending the Breakfast Book Discussion at the Francis Branch on April 24 at 10:00 a.m. with Tricia Sloma, from WNDU, and the author of the infamous blog which you have just read. Register online or call 282-4641.