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The Killer Angels

by Michael Shaara
368 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Jeanne

A violent, poignant depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg, with a great deal of swearing.

Plot

This is a novel of the four days of the Battle of Gettysburg, told from the perspective of different historical figures on both sides. It focuses primarily on Confederate general James Longstreet and Union colonel Joshua Chamberlain.

Morality

Men on both sides question the morality of the war, of slavery, and of actions in battle. Many Confederates felt that pursuing the Union army beyond Virginia was wrong. The fact that many Northerners did not look upon Negroes as fully human, or at least as equal with whites, shows up. Many issues that arise in war time are portrayed in this novel through the eyes of the officers, but are not fully answered.

Spiritual Content

The religious positions of the different men are portrayed. Robert E. Lee's faith appears in those chapters shown from his perspective, but Longstreet questions these views. Chamberlain questions the existence of Heaven. A great deal is said of death and the after-life. Men pray before going into battle. Chamberlain and another man talk about the "divine spark" in men, and whether or not it exists.

Violence

The Battle of Gettysburg was a bloody one, and Shaara depicts that. Wounded men and beasts are described in detail throughout; the smell of death is also mentioned frequently. It is not a book for weak stomachs.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Alcohol, especially whiskey, is consumed. Drunkenness is mentioned.

Sexual Content

Chamberlain longs for his wife back home. Several of the men had wives or sweethearts, and they are mentioned.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

A significant amount of swearing, mostly taking God's name in vain and "d*mn". It is mentioned that someone uses "an obscene word." Crude jokes are mentioned in passing. References to "the Old Soldier's Disease" are made.

Conclusion

"The Killer Angels" is a vivid, historically-sound portrayal of the most famous battle of the Civil War, written to put the reader on the scene and understand the mindsets of the men involved. Shaara moves from person to person, naming the point-of-view character at the heading of each chapter, and so gives the reader a feel for the relationships each man had on his own side and on the other. It takes the reader beyond tactics to the minds of the men present.

Shaara's writing style is one that may be difficult to get into. It is choppy, with short, abrupt sentences, but this is likely used to increase tension. Once the reader has gotten used to that, it becomes easier to follow.

Fun Score: 4
Values Score: 3
Written for Age: adult

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