I heard a Viet Nam soldier interviewed this morning. His family has never heard him speak of his days in that ghastly battle zone, though he has several medals marking his service there. In a choked voice, he described the nightmare that has been with him ever since: The surprised, point-blank shooting of an enemy, only to realize afterward that the other soldier’s arms had been raised in surrender. Fifty years later, this knowledge haunts him. I was an innocent seventh-grader that year, aware that boys were fighting somewhere off around the world in an unpopular war. Meanwhile, I was safe and sound, tripping toward my teens, probably blissfully reading some great book before bedtime.
I still have that book-reading habit, and want to tell about a book I think would appeal to teen boys today. A couple of months ago, a friend asked me if I’d ever read The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. I hadn’t. She told me she invented errands so she could listen to the audio in the van and her son was profoundly affected by it. So I read it.
It is the story of Gettysburg told through the thoughts and actions of some of its greatest heroes. Both sides had heroes. Not only does this famous battle come vividly into focus, but this author’s portrayal of the secret thoughts, motives, and decisions of the men who found themselves in sudden life-and-death circumstances is arresting. To say Shaara’s telling of this tale is powerful and profoundly riveting seems somehow inadequate. Like my friend, who found herself standing in a grocery store holding a bag of carrots, motionless, so deep in thought was she about the precarious perils the characters were facing in the story, I also found myself unable to think of anything else while reading this novel.
This kind of book makes the usual river of young adult books seem like the drivel (most of) it is. The men portrayed in this book were real people who once moved, and breathed, and struggled, and feared like any of us, and the price they paid for what they believed in is astounding. Our boys need to know these men. They need to envision a world bigger than their bedroom or classroom, or far more worth living for than the one paraded before them in the media. Our young men long to have something beyond themselves to live — or even to die – for and the stories of Longstreet, Lee, Chamberlain and others is a legacy that belongs to them.
The Civil War is a distant event, but those soldiers’ lives should not be forgotten. In a day when, as Isaiah proclaimed, “Good is called evil and evil good,” true stories of heroes facing moral dilemmas will awaken a young man’s instinct for justice and show him that valor, honor, and sacrifice are his calling, too. We don’t know, we parents, what struggles await our boys, but I think it’s safe to say that these stories, stored inside them, will feed their souls with ideas that will make a difference in their own life stories.