The World War II submarine film U-571 is a good war movie and a good action movie, but it suffers one major flaw: everything bad that can happen to the crew does happen, so it seems more like a catalogue of WWII submarine movie tropes rather than a compelling story in its own right.
Harold Keith's Rifles for Watie, winner of the 1958 Newbery Medal, is similar in that Keith manages to throw just about every Civil War story element into his novel. But where a good movie like U-571 can't quite transcend the clutter, a great book like Rifles for Watie takes all those elements and makes from them a deeply moving story about manhood, love, and war.
This is really the only Newbery book that can be called an epic. It begins just before the outbreak of the American Civil War and ends just after its conclusion, and follows the adventures and sorrows of Jefferson Davis Bussey. Bussey leaves his family's Kansas farm as a green 16-year-old to join the Union army after Missouri bushwhackers almost kill his father.
After that, everything happens. Jeff is present at several battles in the Western Theater, is court-martialed, witnesses an execution, almost starves to death, gets malaria, loses several friends to death, falls in love, meets real-life General Stand Watie, is chased for days on end, earns a Congressional Medal of Honor, and even enlists as a Confederate soldier while acting as a spy.
Stand Watie was a Cherokee leader who attained the rank of brigadier-general in the Confederate Army. His mounted raiders were feared fighters, and the plot of this novel revolves loosely around a fictional conspiracy of Watie to obtain repeating rifles from a corrupt Union officer.
Looking at the list of Jeff's adventures makes the whole thing look pretty unrealistic, but Keith brings them to such vivid life that it all makes sense. Rifles for Watie, after all, isn't an historical novel in the sense that Keith drops some modern-day characters into a vaguely historical context.
Rather, it's a novel about characters who think and act like people in the United and Confederate States of the 1860s would have thought and acted. In many ways this makes them even more relatable—not because they think exactly like 21st century people like us do, but precisely because they don't. We get the sense that these are real people, actually living out their often painful and sometimes joyful lives in the midst of America's most devastating conflict.
Keith seems intent on maintaining realism, no matter what he's describing. Whether it's the interactions of both Northerners and Southerners with slaves, the lack of military discipline within the ranks of Stand Watie's raiders, the effects of disease, or the powerful feelings of first love, Keith describes them with the utmost precision and care.
This also leads him to a level of grittiness few novels for adolescents attain. Descriptions aren't gratuitous, but the book is about war and Jeff sees its horrifying effects firsthand. Yet the depictions are balanced: there is blood and gore, but there are also scenes of bereft wives and mothers, the aftermath of raiding parties, and loss of innocence.
As Jeff moves from recruit to veteran, he becomes more honest and realistic about his country and the war. He also becomes a man, and Keith is a good enough writer that the change is gradual and subtle rather than all at once. Before his first battle, Jeff can't wait to fight the enemy; after four years of fighting, his attitude is quite different.
One of the things that makes this novel so good is that Jeff often has to wrestle with his feelings, but ultimately he reaches the conclusion that it is his conscience and what he knows to be right which must guide his actions, not how he feels. This leads him more than once to make painful decisions, but in so doing he becomes a worthy protagonist and even a role model.
Unlike many historical novels on the Newbery Medal list, this one doesn't shy away from tackling real historical issues. As a white Christian Unionist from Kansas, Jeff must grapple with his attitudes toward slavery, the depredations inflicted on the South by the North (and vice versa), the unconstitutional conduct of the U. S. government, etc.
You'd be hard pressed to find a better Civil War novel for middle or high school students. In fact, Keith's masterpiece holds its own among Civil War fiction in general, both for its compelling narrative and its accurate portrait of life and attitudes at a critical moment in our nation's history. If you haven't read this one yet, you should.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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