Known for his epic novels of historical fiction, Jeff Shaara has further distanced himself from those within the genre by writing solely (or, at least predominantly) about war, through American eyes. This novel, the first in a tetralogy on the Western Theatre of the US Civil War is no exception in its greatness. Shaara chooses to focus the first novel on the Battle of Shiloh, to that point the bloodiest battle ever fought on US soil, in Spring, 1862. Shaara chooses wisely as he moves the focus west (in this case, West would be along the lines of Kentucky and Tennessee), at times on the cusp of the North-South divide. As he states in his introduction, Shaara is careful to choose a handful of characters to tell this story. From the Union side, narratives include those with a focus on General Ulysses S. Grant and faceless soldier Fritz Bauer. Offering a balance, Shaara hands the reins to Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston and Cavalryman James Seeley. Within the narrative, characters advance not only the plans of the battle as both sides mobilised, but some of the inner struggles that both the mighty and peons felt, some barely able to grasp the concept of war. As pressure mounts and the major battle seems imminent, the characters are forced to their limits and the little-known Bauer and Seeley become central, allowing them to describe the horrors they witness. While historians have focussed much attention on the views of Grant and even Johnston, this insight into the blood, gore, and loss of the frontline soldiers helps stir events as Shiloh becomes less about a land grab and more the piercing of souls and loss of innocence. By the end, with bodies strewn all over, neither side can truly say they have won, even though history will record it as a significant Union victory. Shaara offers another round of ‘the horrors of war’ as it echoes throughout the pages of this powerful novel, peppered with just enough reality to provide the reader with additional chills.
I have long been a fan of Shaara and his writing. His style of getting to the core of the issue, the views of the day-to-day soldiers offers something refreshing that is missing from biographies or pieces of historical non-fiction. Shaara pulls out a random (usually fake) soldier and levies much of the real insights of war through their eyes. This allows the reader to better understand things, with less of the clean-cut precision that war historians tend to offer. His use of real sources helps to support the claims of truth behind the novels he pens, though they remain fiction because of the dreamt-up dialogue he uses to propel the story forward. That being said, I will admit that there are times that I got lost in the minutiae or the dialogue and details, even though I am focussed with a keen narrator through the audiobook version. I struggled repeatedly to find some of the key moments of character development or the crucial lead-up to events. I found myself learning about some of the characters, but ask me specifics about their plights or worries and I would be lost. I find this to be more my lack of sustained interest in the intricate details of the US Civil War (sorry, my American friends) than Shaara’s writing. I cannot, in good conscience, offer up a five-star rating for this book, though I feel it is more my impediment than the author’s inability to transmit things. I find myself in the position where I hold my nose and rate the book more along the lines with what I know it is worth rather than how it made me feel, disconnected from what I know of the author. I also promised myself that I would read all the books in this tetralogy and I will. I want to open my mind and perhaps catch myself enthralled by the time this is all over and done with. I owe it to myself and Jeff Shaara, whose past work has been stellar, even to a lowly Canadian such as myself.
Kudos, Mr. Shaara, for you would still make your father proud with a novel like this. While I sometimes have troubles with concepts or intricate battle plotting, I know I need to pay better attention and I will surely learn a great deal from you.