Review: Gods and Generals, Jeff Shaara

Rating: 4 out of 5

I found this book to be very good but also difficult. This is stated with respect to both the topic under discussion as well as how this is written. Furthermore, I guess this is one of those books which to a regular (read: Western) reader is history while in other cultures this would be historical fiction. In that way, this is quite similar to one of my favourite authors, Ryōtarō Shiba, with the exception that the style Mr Shaara uses never attains the clarity of Mr Shiba.

On to the subject… The American Civil War and actions in the eastern theatres up to slightly before Gettysburg. I imagine the author had done a lot of backstudy before committing to this writing as there are of course plenty of topics here which can infuriate. What I found the simplest, however, was the matter-of-factness with which combat was described as not having an ulterior motive other than help the guy next to you. It were the people directing the war who had the luxury of grand goals and lofty ideals while the people on the frontlines had to make do with what they had.

There are also abject lessons on the usefulness of political command over soldiers. Lincoln comes across much as Davies does with the exception that Lincoln learns after passing through a great number of field-commanders while Davies doesn’t (though it does not yet happen in this volume). The same lessons have been replicated in numerous situations, not only relating to warfare, ever since human interactions began — and yet we do not learn!

What I fault most was the style though I appreciate Mr Shaara’s try to make it sound genuine mid-19th century. It does. It’s just that ‘genuine’ isn’t synonymous with ‘highly readable’. However, there’s also a minor joy to the style: to me it carries this constant sense of doom. Naturally, we know what’s going to happen and the characters in the book do not. But it’s more than that because there are small Easter eggs on the way that the (lucky) reader can recognise and know that yet another (fatal) step has occurred in this reproduction of history — surely inevitable, yes, but nevertheless harrowing!

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