Monday, April 23, 2012

Gods and Generals - Jeff Shaara

Another fine guest review from the lovely Elizabeth Marsh.  I get the feeling you might be seeing a lot more of her around here...
Summary:  The story follows four main characters from 1858 to the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg. Robert E Lee is a frustrated cavalry officer in Texas, watching his 30-year career in the U.S. Army stagnate into an unfulfilling conclusion to a life that has kept him far from his home, and the growth of his family. Thomas J. Jackson is an ill-equipped professor at the Virginia Military Institute who suffers enormous personal tragedy, and yearns for the exciting life he had known briefly as a soldier in the Mexican War. Winfield Scott Hancock is a one-man quartermaster in the small village of Los Angeles, California, also yearning for life closer to the "action," and like Lee, finds himself frustrated by a career that seems to be too far removed from the attention of his superiors. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is a rising young star in the academic world of Bowdoin College in Maine, who realizes that his career is pleasing everyone but him.

As the extraordinary events of 1861 unfold, and the country collapses into the horror of a Civil War, each man must face his family, his personal duty and his own sense of responsibility to his country. The path these four men take, Lee and Jackson choosing to fight for the South, Hancock and Chamberlain fighting for the Union, reflect the paths taken by an entire generation of Americans.
Through the first two years of the war, each man learns not only about war, but about his own place in history. At Fredericksburg in December, 1862, the four men take to the same horrible field, discovering first hand what the Civil War has become, and what their own role will be. At Chancellorsville, in May, 1863, the story comes to a brutal climax as Jackson, now called "Stonewall," is killed, and with his death both sides understand that the tide of the war is turned. (Summary from - Image from

My Summary:  To start, I promise I read more than historical fiction!  However, I was so taken with The Killer Angels, that I was bound and determined to read this, the prequel penned by his son, as quickly as possible.

I love Gone with the Wind entirely.  I remember being so excited to read the sequel Scarlett and love it as much, solely based on its relationship to Mitchell’s classic.  But, to my disappointment, it was fine, but certainly not a classic!  I felt the exact same way about Gods and Generals, and I don’t think it’s entirely Shaara’s fault.  His father created a masterpiece, and he took up the torch after his father’s death by writing this and The Last Full Measure, which details the end of the Civil War.  The writing is fine, but it just doesn’t live up to the classic.

I think part of the problem is that Shaara has bitten off quite a lot.  He’s covering substantially more characters, more time, and more battles, and it’s a LOT to keep straight. I felt like he focuses more on the politics and the power struggles going on than the battles and causes of his characters, and that made it harder to relate.  Further, he jumps around in the middle of important decisions a lot, so I was constantly going back to check whose viewpoint I was reading, and then double-checking to make sure they were on the same side.  It was a little dizzying to read Union, Confederate, back to Union, two Confederates and finally, another Union point of view all in one day’s battle, and it made following these lesser-known battles difficult.  Wikipedia was my friend, sadly.

Featured heavily in Gods and Generals is Stonewall Jackson, and I was fully prepared to love him … but it just didn’t ring as true as I wanted.  Please don’t get me wrong, Shaara has done a wonderful job and this is definitely worth the read, it just didn’t strike my heart.  That being said, I nearly went back and changed my rating of The Killer Angels once I got a few days’ distance and was able to fully digest the book.  I hope that happens here!

My Rating:  3 stars.  It is an interesting read, and certainly worthwhile.

For the Sensitive Reader:  Clean.  For as many battles as are fought, Shaara writes more from the Generals’ viewpoints, so the gore is very minimal.

Sum it up:  I liked it, but I wish I had read the trilogy in order – starting with this.

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