The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War

By: Michael Shaara 
Civil War Trilogy Book 2
(Historical) Fiction
Rating: 3/5

The Killer Angels

First of all, The Killer Angels has won the Pulitzer Prize.

So obviously it’s worthy of being read.

My issue is less with the style of writing or whether or not it’s engaging. I liked the story; I didn’t hate the writing (though, to be honest, I didn’t think it was anything special).

My problem with this novel is that it’s supposed to be historical fiction, right? It says right there on the cover: a novel of the Civil War. The plot line is simply the Battle of Gettysburg; Shaara barely even hints at the what happens before or after the battle. He’s got a focused plot, I’ll give him that. And this book is wildly popular, so he must have the facts straight, too. And don’t think I didn’t like this book because I don’t like history; historical fiction is, bar none, my favorite genre.

And, to his credit, Shaara does state explicitly that “the interpretation of character is [his] own.”

But, to me, it just read wrong. The men in this book are not real people. They are idolizations, glorifications. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure there were plenty of people who thought or acted or spoke the way Shaara’s characters do. At times. Maybe.

But this book almost completely removes any sense of wrongdoing from anyone. The generals who call the shots in this novel are Tolstoy-esque, passive onlookers living through an inevitable circumstance, however tragic. Even when a character takes a decisive action, the language portrays it as something he had to do, something beyond him, something bigger than him. I’m sure these guys felt pressure, obviously. But to portray it as though they didn’t have the power to do anything about it seems to remove any and all accountability from them.

“Don’t speak bad of the dead,” right? I get that. And maybe these men did feel that they were unable to take any other course of action. But, to me (and I’m no war scholar, so what do I matter), this feels cheap. It feels biased. It feels romanticized.

And I don’t buy it.

Were the Battle of Gettysburg not a real event, were the characters in the book not real men, were the consequences and causes of the Civil War not reality, I would’ve had much more love for this book. As a work of fiction, it’s great. As a depiction of history, not so much.

But this book is good for understanding the atrocities of war, the complicated reality of the Civil War, the hierarchies and relationships of the military. It deals with military strategy in a simplistic way that makes it much more approachable than it would otherwise be. And Shaara has a very intriguing method of writing inside his characters’ heads.

So this novel has it’s high points. But for me, the lows win out. Am I wrong?




If you liked The Killer Angels, check these out:

(for nonfiction war themes)

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

(for martial historical fiction)

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

(for other Civil War books)

Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

(for other books by Shaara)

The Rebel in Autumn by Michael Shaara

For Love of the Game by Michael Shaara


Coming up:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig


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