Monday, February 28, 2011
CIVIL WAR READALONG: Rifles for Watie
My second read is Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith. It won the Newberry Award in 1957 and is a famous young adult novel. Keith interviewed veterans to add to the authenticity of the story. He sets the novel west of the Mississippi in Kansas and Oklahoma. Keith deserves credit for bringing some exposure to this forgotten theater.
The main character is Jefferson Davis Bussey. He comes from an anti-slavery family living in Kansas. Kansas is being torn between pro and anti-slavery forces. Early in the book, his family joins together to evict two bushwhackers. Jeff's father agrees to his going off to war at the tender age of sixteen. This sets Jeff off on a series of adventures that last through the war. Along the way, we meet various interesting characters including the main villain - Major Clardy. Clardy is as hissable as you would expect in a young adult novel. He is out to get Jeff from the moment he hears Jeff's first and middle names.
Jeff is your typical teenage boy in that he can't wait for combat. The book leads off with the Battle of Wilson's Creek, but it's a big tease because Jeff is sent to the rear and misses the battle. He also misses the Battle of Pea Ridge while on a road crew. It's almost like Keith is uncomfortable with writing about combat. Finally, Jeff is in the thick of the Battle of Prairie Grove. Lines like "What funny music the rebel Minie balls made. Some of them mewed like kittens. Others hummed like angry hornets or whined like richocheting nails" prove Keith is capable. He also perceptively writes "bayoneted muskets carried at the ready, they strode blindly forward to whatever fate awaited them. Angrily, Jeff thought of how little control a soldier in the ranks had over his own destiny". The combat is well done with the exception that Jeff unrealistically fights from a prone position. After the battle there is a poignant reunion between Jeff and a drummer boy who is mortally wounded from being run over by a caisson. Keith makes clear the tragedy of war by killing off several characters.
This being a YA novel, there has to be a love interest and she has to be seemingly out of Jeff's league. He falls in love with Lucy Washburne who not only is in a slave-holding family, but her father and brother are fighting on the other side. Predictably, she does not care for Jeff at first. She warms to him after he sees that her brother (executed by firing squad for being a spy) is returned for burial. Living in the small world of young adult fiction comes in handy for Jeff.
The second half of the book has Jeff unwillingly switching sides and joining General Stand Watie's cavalry regiment. Jeff makes friends with several of the likable rebels as he looks for the opportunity to return to Union lines with valuable information. He even participates in battles. He bonds with these enemies as he discovers they are not bad dudes after all. He might have stayed if he hadn't discovered that the evil villain that is selling Union repeating rifles is, drum roll please, Major Clardy! Surprise, not.
Before he escapes Jeff runs into Lucy (small world, remember) and she melts in his arms agreeing that he can't remain a rebel and still look himself in the mirror. He barely makes it out of camp after Clardy spots him. It is a long trek cross-country back to Union lines. Fortunately, when the vaunted Rebel bloodhound discovers him, Jeff improbably convinces the dog to switch sides and join him. The dog is a traitor! By the way, this dog makes the third dog that plays a role in the story. If you love dogs, this book is for you. I won't give away the end, but it is satisfying and not as trite as you might expect. I cannot resist quoting Jeff's buddies when they encounter him - "Gosh all fishhooks! It's Bussey!"
I would not recommend Rifles for Watie to anyone doing the Civil War readalong, unless you are a teenager. Keith is a competent writer, but does not wow you. The book is very long for a YA novel at 332 pages. I cannot imagine the book is read much by today's teenage boys. You may have to blow the dust off the library copy like I had to. There are some flaws. There are several huge jumps in the chronology. There is not enough combat for my liking. But most disconcerting is the uncomfortable feeling that Jeff is a spy who befriends the rebels, is cared for by them, and then abandons them. The fact is that if he had been captured and executed by firng squad, noone could argue that would have been an injustice. However, the book does a service to the history of the Civil War west of the MIssissippi. The battles are real, if cursorily covered. The soldier life and attitudes ring true. Stand Watie is a fascinating historical figure. I should add, however, that he never tried to acquire repeating rifles.