Monday, January 24, 2011

Review: The Killer Angels ~ by Michael Shaara


The Killer Angels - Shaara

The first review for the year 2011!

The Killer Angels ~ by Michael Shaara (Reviewed by John/JD)

An excellent historical fiction novel about the greatest battle of the American Civil War, told from the perspective of several of the main protagonists.

About:  This novel covers four fateful days in the summer of 1863 – the three days of the battle of Gettysburg and the day leading up to it. A highly successful Confederate army led by the beloved Robert E. Lee has invaded the Northern States and threatens to turn the course of the war, while a Union army that has been plagued by poor leaders is scrambling to intercept and stop them. They convene on the small Pennsylvanian town of Gettysburg. While this was just one battle in a long war, it involved no less than 160,000 soldiers and was destined to have a major influence on the outcome of the war and, consequently, the very nature of the United States.

John’s Thought’s: Unusually for a work of historic fiction, this book closely follows real-life events but you experience them via several of the leading people who were actually involved, rather than via fictional characters. This gives it the feeling of several intertwining autobiographies, a device which Shaara uses very successfully. Of course, it is still a work of fiction as Shaara has to imagine and create the motivations and feelings of the characters, and has to fill in many details which are either unknown or debated by historians. While some have taken issue with these details, it is very clear that Shaara has done an awful lot of homework to support his novel. Whether correct or not, this feels like an important historical document and is also a very entertaining read.

UK The Killer Angels

You get to experience the events gradually unfolding, the actions or inactions that would influence the outcome, the impact that individuals’ personalities and mental states would have on events, the fog of war, and the total horror of a major battle where many thousands of soldiers were slaughtered (after three days almost 50,000 men were either killed, wounded or missing). Shaara also takes you deep inside the personalities of the main characters, and while some have debated his interpretations of them, this makes for a fascinating read.

As a Brit who is not particularly in tune with American history, I learned a lot from the book and it also caused me to do some extra Googling and reading to find out more – about the Civil War, its causes, Gettysburg and some of the main characters. So was this the decisive battle of the war and who won the day? Those questions too are debated by historians. The Confederates most certainly did not win the battle, and they might have; the Union army most certainly did not lose the battle, yet they so very nearly did. While the outcome may not be clear cut, it does seem that Gettysburg forever damaged the psyche of the Confederate army, led to a more conservative strategy, and ultimately played a substantial part in its defeat.

An excellent book – educational, enlightening, thought-provoking and entertaining. I’d rate it 4.5 stars. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or who wants to find out more about the Civil War. I also found out that a movie was made that was based on the book, which I’ll now be seeking out (it’s simply called “Gettysburg”).

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara 1974 ~ US|UK|Canada. (Top cover copy is US and Canada the lower is for UK).

This book was given to John as a Christmas gift to read for The War Through the Generations – US Civil War Challenge and a few other challenges yet to be determined (Historical Fiction and World Lit). Funny thing is that I had to pry it out of his hands and hide it till after the first of the year since he dove right in. He was a bit discombobulated until after I gave it back to him, then he devoured it in short order.

Thanks for reading and hope you’re all achieving your 2011 resolutions. Darn it’s good to be home!


Anna and Serena said...

We've added a link to your review to the book reviews page and a snippet of the review will post in March.

Thanks for participating and keep sending in your links.

Unknown said...

Hey Anna & Serena -
You beat me to

Wow you must have loads of reviews to post if its not until March.

I hope your doing well.


D.M. McGowan said...

I have no idea how many books I've read about the US Civil War - mostly fiction - but this is definitely one of the very best. Perhaps one day I'll try to do something similar with the Riel Rebelion or perhaps the Poverty Riot in Regina, Sask.

John D said...

Hi Dave,

I'm the opposite end of the spectrum from you as this was my first US Civil War read. But it was an impressive book and has certainly piqued my interest.

In fact just last night I finished reading E.L. Doctorow's "The March". It was a good read but I wouldn't put it in the same class as "The Killer Angels". Anything else that you'd recommend? Cheers,


Alexia561 said...

Enjoyed your review! I'm not a big history fan, but you make this one sound worth reading! I remember that Michael Shaara was always the go-to recommendation for Father's Day gifts when I worked in a bookstore. :)

John D said...

Hi Alexia,

Thanks for the kind words. I must admit that I'd never heard of Shaara until Shellie presented me with this book - but now I have and I'm glad that she did!

I can see why this one would have been popular with Dads, though I'd think the strong autobiographical element might make it appeal to a wider audience too.

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