I first read The Killer Angels when I took a class on the American Civil War, a subject that has fascinated me for many years now. Now, I’m listening to it on audiobook with my boyfriend. I’ve been trying to make him read it for ages, and this seems to be the best medium for busy lives and car trips.
First, the facts. The Killer Angels is historical fiction that covers the battle of Gettysburg. The author, Michael Shaara, tells of the events leading up to and all throughout Gettysburg, and he does it by taking you back and forth, 3rd-person-omniscient style, from Union commanders to Confederate commanders.
Now, let’s talk about history teachers.
I was a credit away from a history minor, so I’ve taken my fair share of history classes–not nearly enough to even have a tenuous grasp on history’s vast expanse, but enough to know a thing or two about its teachers. History teachers are what make or break the class. You get one with a political agenda or who is never prepared for class, and it’s all over, no matter your interest level. But get a history teacher that lives and breathes the subject, one that is a storyteller, and that will be the best teacher. The class will be riveting. These people from the past will seem as though they’re right in front of you, and your heart will break or soar with each turn of events. My Civil War teacher was like that. He made everyone come so alive. I was brought to tears in the class more than once.
If you’ve never had a history teacher like this, never fear. Michael Shaara will be that teacher for you. The author pored over letters, pictures, firsthand accounts, secondhand accounts, descriptions of people, locations, and details, and the result is not just historical accuracy–it’s as if he knows the characters. Each officer has been meticulously researched. For instance, he’s taken the description of Lee’s soft-spoken nature and instilled that perfectly in the book’s character in a way that’s also harmonious with his aggressive war tactics. He hints that Lee’s heart disease may have been the source of his (extremely unusual) bad judgement calls, as some historians speculate. Shaara does this in a way that is so marvelously subtle. Readers get to hear about the battle from someone who makes it seem like he was there and who, better yet, understands both sides and paints each with equal sympathy.
And he’s a beautiful storyteller, painting the most vivid pictures and engaging all your senses. He describes the heat of the days, the exhaustion of the generals, the sorrow of loss, the revulsion mixed with a sense of pride and duty of the soldiers, the small joy of a cup of coffee and a piece of meat in the midst of weariness. All the physical and psychological details are done in such a way that you sincerely feel as if you’re listening to a story, not studying history. Sometimes the adjective lists and overexcited similes get a little out of hand, but I’d rather it be this way–Shaara is bursting with empathy, and it is contagious.
This book is not at all gritty, by the way. It’s raw, and death is hardly something that Shaara shies away from–how could he, after all?–but it’s not the literary equivalent of watching a slasher film. You won’t get endless descriptions of gore. Nor is the book tactical the way some war books are, though you will understand the tactics of the battle without much issue. It’d describe it as elegant and extremely accessible, no matter your understanding of the subject matter. It’s a book for all readers.
So if you always wanted a great history teacher and never got to have one, here’s your chance.
On a totally unrelated note, now that I’ve forsaken Dreiser…the Pynchon I’ve been swearing I’m going to read or some long-overdue Nabokov? Lolita‘s been on my list for an eternity. But not like that. Oh no, here comes Chris Hansen.