“To Fiction or to Non-Fiction – that is the question Jeff Shaara does not concern himself with…”
– Hamlet, Act 8 – Scene 3
Jeff Shaara pulls off a neat trick with his 2012 book “A Blaze of Glory.” He presents a historical documentation of the civil war battle of Shiloh in the guise of a fiction novel. If only our high school history books were written this way, we might remember more. The upside to this approach is that a piece of American history becomes a more compelling narrative as Mr. Shaara delivers a “boots on the ground” perspective from the grunts on the front lines on both sides of the battle, creating a continuing atmosphere of suspense and dread. The downside is that these well-drawn lesser players who took the brunt of the carnage sometimes get lost as the author bounces around to the major players in the story – the generals and other commanders – as he tries to present every perspective from all sides. Nonetheless, it’s a blistering tale of one of the bloodiest battles in American history.
The story begins with a brief introduction, worthy of the scrolling text at the beginning of Star Wars (episode IV, thank you very much), that sets the stage for events to come in the state of Tennessee. The Union had captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson and were pushing towards Nashville as the Confederate soldiers retreated south to Corinth. Mr. Shaara wastes no time throwing the reader into the chaos and confusion of the times as he introduces several soldiers for the South trying to protect themselves and their supplies, as they pull out of Nashville, from the rather upset citizens who fear the coming army from the North. After finally regrouping at Corinth, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, acting on various intelligence reports, decides to march the army north to surprise-attack the Union army massing at Pittsburg Landing.
Union General Ulysses S. Grant and the commanders under him are mustering at Pittsburg Landing, preparing to march south to Corinth. While Grant believes he’s prepared should the South try to take the battle to them at Pittsburg Landing, he doesn’t believe anything will happen until he marches his forces on Corinth. So he’s little prepared for the morning of April 6, 1862, when the Confederate army attacks.
Thus the stage is set for the battle of Shiloh.
We here at MojoFiction have been reading a lot of American(ish) history lately. We really liked “The River of Doubt” by Candice Millard and we finally got around to 1776 by David McCullough (yeah, we were a little late to that one). If you can count it as “American” history, we also liked “The Pirate Hunter – The True Story of Captain Kidd” by Richard Zacks (we were way late on that one). We bring these books up as a point of comparison of storytelling styles when it comes to non-fiction. David McCullough is very much the historian, breathing mythical life into famous events and people; Candice Millard, in our opinion, prefers to get to the emotional heart of the real-life characters by showing us how she believes the circumstances and events affected them and their decision-making; Richard Zacks…we’re pretty sure he just likes pirates, but he’s also a stickler for minutiae, digging facts out of every last possible hole he can find.
All of these authors write non-fiction very differently, but effectively in their own way. They’re good at what they do and it works. But we’re really drawn to Jeff Shaara’s novelisation of the battle of Shiloh and his ability to make it feel so accesible. He’s obviously done his homework, but he doesn’t write in a way that let’s you know he’s done his homework. Yet he includes tremendous detail, including maps showing troop movements and various engagement points, along with the requesite photos and paintings of the people and events. The book looks like a history book, but reads like a novel.
Sometimes this approach can have the effect of glamorizing events that maybe shouldn’t be, but we didn’t get that feeling here. In “A Blaze of Glory,” the author portrays the horrific nature of war and the terror that can strike all sides, even the side that’s winning. Ultimately, the battle of Shiloh didn’t come down to who had the most troops, it came down to a handful of key strategic decisions based on shaky intelligence from the confusion on the spread-out field of battle. One question we were left with was, if there were even just a few more hours of daylight afforded to the confederate troops, would they have pushed forward?
Your enjoyment of this book may come down to how interested you are in the Civil War. But even if you’re not, Jeff Shaara’s storytelling ability and approach to relating history to us oridinary folk make “A Blaze of Glory” a compelling read. We’ll say it again, if high school history books were written with a little narrative flair, we might have enjoyed it more. On the other hand, we’re also reminded of that fact that, at a certain point in life, we’re responsible for our own education.
GEEK ALERT: If you are interested in the Civil War and you also like to play board games (strangely, they don’t have a category on Match.com for that one…), you might like a game called “Battle Cry” (the most recent version). It’s a little pricey, but fun. You can set up about thirty different Civil War battles and go to town. We played the battle of Antietam with our son, thinking it would be easy to beat a seven year-old. …Kid got lucky, that’s all we’re saying.