One-Minute Book Reviews

August 2, 2007

Michael Shaara’s Civil War Novel, ‘The Killer Angels’

At Gettysburg with Robert E. Lee and Joshua Chamberlain

Newt Gingrich often produces unintended comedy when he tries to show the thoughts of military leaders in his new Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th (St. Martin’s, $25.95). Michael Shaara takes on a similar task with much better results in his 1974 Civil War novel, The Killer Angels (Ballantine, $7.99, paperback), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s risky to try to give a fresh account of someone as familiar as Robert E. Lee: What’s there to say that we don’t know?

But Shaara pulls it off in this recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, as refracted through the lives of Lee and others, including the Union’s Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Shaara avoids overstuffing his story with irrelevant period details — the besetting sin of so many historical novels — and offers a brisk account of mental as well as physical struggle. The Killer Angels isn’t in a class with such great war novels as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. But it is an example of military fiction done with intelligence and without the macho posturing that tends to infect the form. Jeff Shaara has attempted to build on his father’s legacy, and while I’ve read only one of his novels, it didn’t come close to this.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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