Sunday, November 25, 2007

Historically Based Fiction :
An Intro to Four of My Favorite Books

In order to graduate from college, I had to take the general education required class in English. I wasn't expecting to enjoy that class much (English was never my strongest subject in high school), but I was pleasantly surprised by most of the books we read - especially The Killer Angels.

In case you aren't familiar with it, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is the Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. The movie Gettysburg is actually based on this novel.

I didn't realize that there were more of these historically-based fiction novels out there until about five years later when I met LW, and she introduced me to three of my favorite novels of all time.

Gods and Generals was written by Michael Shaara's son, Jeff, and it tells the tale of the Civil War from just before the outbreak of war until the Battle of Gettysburg. The book is broken up into small chapters, and each chapter is written from the perspective of one of four key characters (two Confederate and two Union): Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Winfield Scott Hancock, or Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

It just really brings to life what it was like going through the Civil War. I had heard the names of battles like Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, but I couldn't put them into a timeline for you or tell you the importance of what happened at each of those battles until I read Gods and Generals. Likewise, I had heard the names of Grant and Lee, but I didn't really know any of the personalities involved in the leadership of either side of the war before reading the book. I really developed a respect and awe for the leaders on both sides of the war, and once this book piqued my interest in the war, I went on to read more non-fiction works about the war.

Jeff Shaara's writing style is so similar to his father's, you would think it was the same author. LW gave me Gods and Generals while we were on vacation up at Lake Winnipesaukee in NH. I couldn't put the book down. When I finished, I was craving more and picked up The Killer Angels and read it again.

The second of my favorite historically-based fiction novels that LW gave me was 1812 by David Nevin. He has a very similar writing style to Jeff Shaara. 1812 was another page-turner that I just couldn't put down. It tells the story of James and Dolly Madison and Winfield Scott as he rose through the ranks. Again, like Shaara's novels, I was only vaguely familiar with the War of 1812, but this novel really brought it to life.

Again, armed with an appreciation for the personalities and key events and places of the war, it piqued my interest and lead me to read other non-fiction books about the war. When LW and I drove across country from Groton to Monterey in 1999, we stopped at Niagara Falls along the way. LW thought it was because I wanted to see Niagara Falls. It was actually because I wanted to tour the battlefields of the War of 1812 scattered around the falls and visit the museum at the site of the Battle of Lundy's Lane.
Aside: I found the wikipedia account of the Battle of Lundy's Lane fairly well-balanced. This battle is a perfect example of how "truth" in history depends on who wrote it. The novel 1812 is told from the American perspective that Lundy's Lane is where the U.S. Army proved itself as a fighting force against the red coats. The museum at Lundy's Lane is on the Canadian side of the river though, and they tell the story from the British perspective that Lundy's Lane is where they STOPPED the aggressive American expansion across the continent and prevented Canada from being absorbed into the United States. The wikipedia "outcome" section covers both of these viewpoints.
The third historically-based fiction author that LW introduced me to was William Martin. The first of his books I read was Annapolis. On the spectrum between fiction and non-fiction, this tips the scale toward the fiction side. Martin has a whole series of books where he tells the story of a family through several generations. In Annapolis, he tells the story of the Stafford family as one of their sons from each generation goes into the Navy and another stays home to tend the farm. Coincidentally, each generation of the family's naval officer sons is involved in whatever the biggest event in naval history was of that generation It's a really neat story and another page turner.

In contrast, Shaara and Nevin's novels focused on an event or epic of American history and told the story through the eyes of the key players in those time periods. Martin's novels are focused on a fictitious family, and weaves their story into several episodes of history (sort of like Forrest Gump).

Each of these authors, Shaara, Nevin, and Martin, have written many wonderful books, and I could probably write a blog post on each of their books I have read. I'm not sure why Jeff Shaara popped into my head this morning, but it inspired me to write about the first novels I have read from each of these authors. If you have any questions about any of their other novels, I am happy to provide recommendations.
Aside: I don't remember which of my friends introduced me to (I think it might have been Branden in Monterey), but it's a great website for finding the cheapest price on books on the internet. It was a great resource when I had to buy my books for school in Monterey.

In an attempt to not direct you to any one internet bookseller like Amazon or Barnes & Noble (and to help save you some money by using bookfinder), I have tried to put a link into each of the book pictures above to the search for that author and title. I don't know if it will work that way, but I figured I'd give it a shot. Just in case those link on the pictures don't work, the title in the text above is linked to either Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

1 comment:

E.P. said...

I've read three of the books you list here and agree that they're all excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed The Killer Angels, probably one of the best books I've read. I enjoyed Gods and Generals, but not as much. Don't ask for specifics on that, because I read them both some time ago.
As for Annapolis, I was given it as a gift (for obvious reasons) and really liked it. It was very interesting to see how the family interacted with what was going on in history.
As for my favorite historically based fiction, my favorite author didn't make your list. Patrick O'Brian's historically based fiction is absolutely incredible. He is most renowned as the author of the Aubrey/Maturin series (which served as the basis for the movie Master and Commander) It took me three tries to finish the first book (mostly because I tried the first time when I was too young to appreciate it, and the second time on sea duty) but once it bit, I was hooked. I'm kind of waiting to read the last installment (Bule at the Mizzen), because I'm depressed that the series will have to end. BTW, if you get the chance, read the British editions, because them come with a 'bonus feature' of a critical essay at the end.