Thursday, July 03, 2014

The mettle of your pasture

Trying to rush and finish The Killer Angels before it was due at the library, I ended up coincidentally finishing the Pulitzer-winning book about Gettysburg on the 151st anniversary of the battle's end. Because it's a fictionalized version of the conversations and thoughts of generals and other military men in the days leading up to the final battle moments, I never had to read it in any American History class.

So I figured I should.

It's a highly captivating telling of the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War. Honestly, I didn't expect it to be so compelling. But Shaara manages to humanize the historical (and now mythologized) figures: chapters alternate between the points-of-view of General Robert E Lee, General James Longstreet, General Joseph Chamberlain, and other key decision-makers. One thing Shaara illustrates elegantly is the West Point or Army brotherhood of the military leaders on both sides of the War: that they were comrades who fought side by side in the Mexican-American War and elsewhere across the North American continent until the War Between the States forced them to splinter and then lead campaigns against each other.

And as I read about celebrated Down Easter Chamberlain and his famous bayonet charge, and then read about General Pickett's tragic charge the next day, I remembered a conversation from junior year in college (coincidentally in Chamberlain's home state).  In class one day we somehow started talking about high school visits to the Gettysburg battlefield. Having grown up on the west coast away from Civil War immersion, I had nothing to contribute. (I was sooooo jealous that they got high school field trips to Civil War battle sites, while we only got to visit Mount St. Helens!) One thing that emerged from that conversation was that students from New England and the Mid-Atlantic remembered re-enacting Chamberlain's July 2 bayonet charge down Little Round Hill, where a Maine regiment held the Union Army's south line and ensured the eventual victory.

The one Southern student we had in class recalled re-enacting Pickett's futile July 3 charge across the western part of the battlefield.

One state, two states, red states, blue states...

One thing that vaguely irritated me was that Shaara described Chamberlain as an alum and rhetoric professor of Bowdoin "University" instead of "College."  I'm pretty sure Bowdoin was never a university; like my alma mater and its biggest in-state rival, I'm pretty sure Bowdoin was chartered as a College. But whatevs. Poetic licence.

I also wondered whether or not Shaara stuck a totally random black dude in the storyline purely to have the Northerners question their reasons for fighting. In the foreward he claimed to have gone through archives and journals and innumerable accounts of the battle, and tried to be faithful to what was known to have happened. So maybe there really was a runaway slave hiding in the forests near Gettysburg. But it seems too cliche and a little too convenient for a modern audience.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address  --which I still do have memorized all these years after middle school and which Shaara thankfully doesn't mention because Angels is a story of the battle itself--  has often been compared to Thucydides' chronicle of a funeral speech by Pericles.

By total coincidence, I finished the fourth book in Gary Corby's ancient Greek detective series (also in order to avoid overdue library fines). Like the first three murder mysteries, our hero detective is Socrates' older brother and Pericles' private investigator. The first books took place during Athens' fledgling democracy, behind enemy lines in Persia, and during the ancient Olympic games; this latest revolves around the legacy of Marathon, and was as thoroughly as enjoyable and hilarious as the rest of the series. I'm looking forward to more in this series from Corby!

I also find it kind of cool that I had to finish these two books, of all books, before their imminent due dates: two vastly different stories and tones but both addressing experiments in --and interpretations of-- democracy.

The Marathon Conspiracy has stayed with me in two ways largely unrelated to its plot:
1) I have a renewed interest in reading up on the Greco-Persian and Pelopponesian Wars.
2) I really really really need to start training for that 10K I'm running in October.

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