Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Killer Angels, by Michael Sharra

As most of my readers are no doubt aware, next week marks the sesquicentennial of the Union Army's glorious victory over the southern rebel scum at the Battle of Gettysburg. (Bias? What bias?) I am also going on what I expect will be an epic roadtrip with my colleague Mr. Carvan to Gettysburg. Pennsylvania for the sesquicentennial. In preparation for this monumental event I decided to go read The Killer Angels, by Michael Sharra, as well as watch the four-hour film adaptation entitled Gettysburg. In this review I am going to stick mostly with a review of the book itself, but I am forced to admit that in my opinion the movie adaptation is far better executed than the novel.

The novel covers the events of approximately five days, from late on June 29th, 1863, until the end of the last day of the actual battle, July 3rd. The book is organized into chapters following specific historical characters, much like the Song of Ice and Fire novels, and their perspectives. The characters given the most attention by far are General James Longstreet, commander of the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Colonel of the 20th Maine Regiment, a very small part of the Army of the Potomac. There are additional characters as well, such as Robert E. Lee and General John Buford of the Union Cavalry, but by far most of the story follows Longstreet and Chamberlain. As a result I feel like we end up with a very lopsided view of the Gettysburg because of the choice of focal characters. Longstreet is in command of a third of the Confederate army and is Lee's right-hand man in strategy and tactics so we have a very good idea of what is going on with the Army of Northern Virginia and the overall battlefield. By comparison, Chamberlain is just a colonel in charge of a mere three hundred men at a very key position on July 2nd. Certainly it can be said that the actions of the 20th Maine were responsible for saving the Army of the Potomac and, by extension, the Union with their defense of Little Round Top, but that is only one portion of the very large Union Army during the battle. In fact, despite Longstreet and Lee being focal characters for the Confederate side we get very little information about the battles for Culp and Cemetery Hills at the far north of the battlefield. As a result the focus is extremely narrow and if you want to have an in-depth study of the battle there are a number of other sources you should consult.

My major concern with historical fiction, especially with this book, is the use of major historical figures such as Lee, Longstreet, Buford, and Chamberlain, and attributing specific thoughts or words to those characters. Although in the foreword the author states that he has relied upon letters and memoirs for a good deal of his information, without going directly to the primary sources and corroborating said information, (Which would be a very laborious process in and of itself) it is almost impossible to verify the opinions of said characters. That is why I get very wary of historical fiction, because then major historical figures can become mouthpieces for ideas which they may or may not have supported. Again, I cannot say how in-depth and thorough Sharra's research was, but by making it a character-driven piece it left me concerned as to the accuracy of the characters' thoughts.

The final issue I had with this novel was the tendency for the author to tell rather than show. Several things happen off-camera or are briefly glossed over, which the movie does a lot better. I noticed a lot of conversations between characters get summarized in paragraphs when that really needed to be fleshed out better. By contrast, material that needs to be expanded or shown gets shown in the movie, and material that needs to be cut gets cut. It's still a four hour movie on two DVDs, but it's one of those exceptions where the adaptation tells the same story a lot better than the original source material. Plus you get all those awesome battle sequences with literally thousands of reenactors on location at Gettysburg.

Ultimately, for Gettysburg this year if you can't make it to Pennsylvania, I would stick with the excellent film, Gettysburg. Granted, you're going to be there for four hours, but the film is extremely well executed and clearly a labor of love by everyone involved. Yes, it has the same lopsided view of the battle as does the original novel, but it does a much better job with pacing and presentation. The source novel is good, but it just doesn't have the same polished feel of the movie.

- Kalpar

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