By Michael Shaara
A Ballantine Book, 355 pp, 1974
This novel has become a classic since
its publication in 1974. Considered by many the best novel about the
Civil War, and even the best war novel, The Killer Angels was, I
think, the basis for TNT's Gettysburg, which came out several
years ago. As a history buff, I looked forward to reading it.
Generally, I liked it, but not for the
reasons the novel is famous. As a war novel, it lacks the gritty and
close action of war. The only actual war scenes are Chamberlain's stand
on Little Round Top and the last day charge up Cemetery Hill. The rest
of the novel is told from the perspective of the generals, such as Lee
and Longstreet, and Chamberlain (though he's a colonel). Because of this
device, we see few real battles, because the generals are rarely in
them. Instead, we get deep ruminations and reflections about war, with
some talk of strategy and tactics, but not enough to suit my taste. The
battles occur during all this ponderous navel-gazing. It makes for, at
times, a boring book.
That being said, the navel-gazing is
insightful and based on written accounts of the participants. Shaara did
his homework, and it shows. He provides a fascinating glimpse into the
thoughts and feelings of the men who lead a war.
That's why I liked it, though it must
be said that the few battle scenes are quite good. Chamberlain is a
fascinating character, and I think I'll read more about him.
Michael's son Jeff has continued the
tradition, authoring a sequel and prequel to this book, in addition to
novels about the Mexican-American War and the Revolutionary War. I think
I'll try those, and see if the son is worthy of the father.