The best parts of this book are the characters, the history, and the horrors of combat.
I am writing mainly to compare this book with that other great novel of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels. Angels was about gentlemen at war who acted, however mistakenly, nobly. There are moments of nobility here but the veneer is stripped from the characters to reveal the blood and guts of the sacrifices at Gettysburg. This is true partly because several (presumably) fictional characters are enlisted men whose view of the battle is from either side of the bayonet. It is also true because the noble Robert E. Lee is presented, as are all of the major characters, as far from the embodiment of a noble warrior but rather as a complex human being with many human failings hidden behind a mask of command. Similarly the tragic Longstreet who nobly suffers the injustice of having to lead the two tragic, doomed attacks despite having foreseen their tragic consequences, is presented far less favorably than he is in Angels. All of the characters are fully formed and we are treated to their inner most thoughts although those thoughts, like our own, are more frequently ridiculous than sublime. If I were to wax literary I might compare the presentation of the inner lives of the characters to Tolstoy's War and Peace although such an opinion would get me laughed out of the literary department at Snooty University. Well, that plus this is rather War and More War than War and Peace. Be that as it may I do not see this book as a competitor to Angels but I see these two books as informing each other. Much as two witnesses to the same bar fight might testify in entirely different manners each telling the truth to the best of their perception and recollection, here we have two views one rather a romance of the high command and another through the gun sights of the footsore infantry and the powder blackened artilleryman.
The narrator is very good particularly noticeable as his dialect changes from Irish ruffian to North Carolinian mountain folk and to the English aristocrat.
If I had to choose a single character i guess i would go with George Meade, that snapping turtle victor whose laurels were snatched by the unscrupulous Daniel Sickles.
The good part of this book is that it is uplifting. It describes real people in a practically impossible situation who endure and survive by relying upon ancient moral principles (although there are several morally ambiguous incidents). The bad part is that it is organized and largely written as an academic paper. It is not narrative. That is, it doesn't tell a story in a chronological manner but rather is organized on a thematic basis. This results in two problems: 1) there is a great deal of repetition and 2) the great inspirational adventure story this should be is hidden behind this academic objectivity. You have to squint to see a glimpse of the heroism and the humanity of these people.
This is a book with many good features but perhaps the best is the author's seamless weaving of the geography into the narrative. The rain forest comes alive but it is not the rain forest of hippie bumber stickers. The law of the jungle prevails from the mightiest of flora and fauna to the most insignificant. What appears to be an overabundance of life masks a vicious struggle to survive. And into this seething cualdron is cast one of our greatest presidents.
This book is both something more and something less than the Agatha Christie-type novel set in Africa that I was expecting. It is something more in that many relatively minor characters a fully developed. For example, our heroine's father's life story is told and it is both interesting and moving. The book is something less in that there is no Agatha Christie-type mystery here. Certainly there are various mysteries solved as individual client's needs are addressed but there is no primary mystery that makes up the plot. Further, the reader will be able to solve many of the minor mysteries before our heroine does.
As a small business owner, I can attest that this book does more-or-less accurately address the basic concerns of small business owners (as, indeed, All Creatures Great and Small does).
I would have preferred the addition of a locked room murder that has stymied the police or some such.
It is said that history should not be written for at least fifty years after the fact because to do otherwise is to allow emotion to overwhelm fact and to fail to adequately judge the event's influence on history. If that stricture had been followed here, this book would never have been written. Whatever the outcome in Iraq, Desert Storm will now and for ever after be considered merely a dress rehearsl for Enduring Freedom. That would have been a shame because this is a story with much drama and it is a well told story at that. (Or rather, a well written story, because the reader has great difficulty pronouncing even the simplest words, Saudi Arabia for example.) Atkinson has found just the right balance between the big picture dramatically unfolding in the Oval Office and the Pentagon and the personal interest story of the average Joe in an Iraqi prison cell or Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Further, this book might be marketed as cheesy movies of yesteryear were. It is "torn from today's headlines". It is truley amazing how many names in this book are once again in the news, nost notably Abu Ghraib prison.
That is not to say that Atkinson entirely escaped the consequences of disregarding the stricture against too early writing history. Not only have events eclipsed the subject matter but also I feel certain that subsequent revelations coming from the White House and elsewhere will require a substantial re-interpretation of many of these events. For this reason I caution against feeling too well informed from having read this book in that much of its wisdom may be revealed to be more pseudo than profound once new facts come to light. But give that no nevermind. This is what we knew then, current events are informing our opinions, and future events will separate the wheat from the chaff.
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