My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels is a remarkable book indeed: It has been required reading for military schools from the US Army Officer Candidate School to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and is only one of two novels recommended for Officer Professional Development. Why? For one thing — detail, detail, detail. Battle maneuvers, decision-making, the pressures and fears involved. Tactics are discussed and charted, emotions carefully developed and expressed, and conflicts delicately and meaningfully explored. It is a historical exposition on how the epic battle at Gettysburg was fought, yet it is also a tender look at the affection, the conflict, the friendship and duty between people such as Lee, Longstreet, Armistead, Garnett, Tom and Joshua Chamberlain. It is rich with character and alive with history. Detailed description of maneuvers are not sacrificed for moving exploration of character.
The writing style is pure and beautiful genius — so rambling and realistic. The reader is truly in there in the moment of history, which, ironically, doesn’t feel like grand history when one is experiencing it (like what would happen in reality). We see Chamberlain learn of the name of the hill on which he fought only after the battle, afterwards when he realizes it is so significant. The battle scenes are true and utter perfection. Realism, deftness, the wash of scene and emotion coupled with individual images that strike in one’s mind.
Thematically, Shaara does not easily conclude. There is something hopeful in the end, a beautiful picture indeed, but too many foundations of hope have been broken down in the story itself. The title embodies the conflict of humanity in Shaara’s mind: Are we angels, with the “divine spark,” or are we killers, animal and insignificant? Setting this philosophical dilemma in the Civil War is apt: a nation divided in identity, a humanity divided in what it identifies itself. Does Shaara support the war, or war in general? He merely shows the characters, what they thought and believed, and offers no at least easy conclusion. War is indeed pointless in many ways, but there are indeed things worth fighting for. But one doesn’t picture “the Cause” after a massive bloodshed. It’s only after reflection, as Chamberlain embodies in the end.
I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I was irked by the unresolved disillusionment displayed by Chamberlain and especially Longstreet. But this only spurs me to find the original documents of these men and discover what they really believed, if I can ever tell. After reading this, I feel that I would love to write something similar, a moving treatise on a great battle, a human picture of a textbook fact.
I am grateful I read this book, that I experienced this monumental story in its flowing motion, put another war classic under my belt, and got humanly involved once more in the Civil War. The inspiration of life illustrated in this book is something I will always love fiction for, historical fiction most of all.