Sunday, November 25, 2007

Entry for July 3, 2007 - Making History Live

I took a bit of a break from children's/young adult's fiction to read a book written for adults, Where the Road Begins by Nancy Dane. I have a distant connection to Nancy, sort of a "friend of a friend of a friend," so I thought I should read her book, her first to be published. The story centers around a 15-year-old boy in the Ozark Mountains and the hardships the Civil War brought on him and his family. At first, I thought I was not going to be able to get very far. For the first six chapters, I was just trudging along with her by the force of will. The plot wasn't going anywhere -- it was more like a "manual" on how people used to live. That's ok if I'm reading nonfiction, but I guess I expect a story to move. I also was overwhelmed by the number of characters introduced in those first chapters -- I felt like I needed a chart to keep them straight. I had almost written the book off as one of those "homemade" stories, as my mother calls them.

However, things finally started to move when Elijah was "conscripted" (read "kidnapped") into the Confederate Army and was marching toward the battle of Pea Ridge. From that point on, I was intrigued to know how his story would turn out, and in fact, toward the end, didn't put the book down until I was finished (that's always a good sign).

I had the good fortune a couple of days later to actually visit the Pea Ridge National Military Park, and the experience of the book and the experience of seeing the site of the battle came together in my mind in a most satisfying way. I don't know about you, but when I studied history in high school and even in college, it was just a collection of dry facts -- dates, battles, leaders. But standing and looking out on the battlefield where General McCulloch was shot and killed, I had a sense of those events happening to people. Those little red and blue lines in the diagrams in the textbooks were made up of real men, cold and hungry, away from their families, marching because their generals told them to march, having no idea of the big picture of the battle, shooting when they saw "the enemy," hiding behind trees to avoid being shot themselves. The arrogance of General Van Dorn becomes more tragic, a flaw that cost thousands of lives instead of just a tactical error that caused him to lose the "biggest battle west of the Mississippi." It's a thrilling way to look at history, and I think it's a shame that viewpoint doesn't find its way into the classroom more often. (Of course, I think there's a strong possibility I am a true geek about this -- the other day, I was doing some historical research for a project I'm working on, and I was looking at the actual manuscript of a journal from 1822. I got such a thrill from holding that browned paper in my hands and thinking that nearly 200 years ago, the Rev. Alfred Finney -- a real person with his own agenda and motivations -- sat down to write those words. Yes, a thrill, ha ha!)

So, what I thought was going to be a tedious read actually turned out to be something I will probably read again someday. But, at the risk of seeming too picky, there were a few things I didn't like. 1) There were spelling errors -- not just regular words, either, but names. Within two pages, I once found the name of the editor of the Arkansas Gazette spelled three different ways. That's just sloppy editing. If it was some fictional character, I might be more forgiving, but when you can go to the historical documents and find the right way to spell the name with just a little trouble, you ought to do it. 2) I really didn't like any of the female characters (except one who was a minor character and quickly disappeared). They just weren't sympathetic to me. I couldn't see why Elijah was so crazy about Cindy -- she seemed like a real spoiled brat. His mother, too. But the author seems to hold them up as the peak of "delicate womanhood." Bleah. 3) I thought Elijah matured WAY too fast. Of course, I suppose war does that, but I'm talking physically too. At the beginning of the book (which would have been September 1861? I think), Dane described Elijah as barely needing to shave. After the battle of Pea Ridge (March 1862) --6 months later -- he had a full beard. Hmmmmm . . . . something's not right there. . . . guess it was the Army coffee, ha ha. That's the kind of thing that takes me out of the flow of a story and sort of ruins my "suspension of disbelief" -- but maybe I'm just too picky.

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