Jeff Shaara Writes Like He Was There
By Jeff Salter
Having always loved history and biography, I’m chagrined to be several years late discovering how well Jeff Shaara can bring both to life. He’s likely best known for his Civil War books, which I hope to tackle after I read through his WW2 series and a few others.
Enjoying history and biography as much as I do, it’s only natural for me to love historical fiction and – assuming Shaara’s other work is as superb as this first exposure – I’m sure I’ll become a devoted Shaara fan.
It’s been decades since I was a young student, but my current impression is that there’s a disturbing trend to de-emphasize history in general and American history in particular. With some of the “outcome-based” teaching strategies, too many students (I fear) are not learning what happened and what it meant… but are merely memorizing answers to the selected history questions on their high school exit exam.
Too may students dodge history courses with the prejudice that it’s boring. I could tell you horror tales of dry textbooks which succeeded only in withering any potential interest of the student – whether in fifth grade or college. I could also name some instructors – like Paul Lacroix in eighth grade – who made history come alive for me. But that’s not my focus today.
I’m here to tell you about Shaara’s Rise to Rebellion, the first of a two-part series on the American Revolution. This one takes us from March 1770 to summer of 1776 — and I fear most citizens will recall of that period little more than a few of the more notable names and perhaps three or four of the major events.
Shaara, however, primarily through the eyes of four principals, takes us on a leisurely tour of the places and events… and we understand (perhaps for the first time) the significance of those info fragments we somehow retained from school.
There are way too many to recount here, but let me offer two brief examples:
** everybody (hopefully) comprehends the topical reference to the Boston Tea Party, but in Shaara’s novel, we learn what led up to it, why the British monopoly on tea imports was so crippling to the colonists, and how the colonists managed to stage this monumental protest without the loss of life.
** everybody (hopefully) remembers the imagery of two lanterns in the church tower and Paul Revere’s ride, but in Shaara’s novel, we learn where the British were, why they were there, where they were going, what their mission was, and how the colonials assembled their defenses.
The primary individuals, through whose eyes we see these events unfold, are Ben Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, George Washington, and British General Thomas Gage. Skillfully weaving in the letters, journals, speeches, and other historical documents of these individuals, Shaara delves so deeply into his characters that he admirably conveys what they were probably thinking and likely feeling. He does this so authentically and seamlessly, that it appears Shaara was a fly on the wall during most of their conversations and a contemporary confidante of each of the principals.
I have little patience for long books and this one, at 548 pages, could otherwise make a great doorstop. But I was completely engrossed and can’t wait to read part two, which picks up the story just after the Declaration of Independence has been drafted, signed, and published (in both England and America).
Despite the authentic historical feel of this book, let me say a final word about the difference between history and a novel. In fact, I’ll just quote Shaara from his two-page intro called “To the Reader” —
“By definition, this is a novel. As painstaking as I try to be in telling you this story through the voices of the characters themselves, in their own words and through their own experiences, the dialogue and thoughts must be read as fiction.”
And later, in that same essay:
“I have tried to show how each of these characters responded to his or her time, how they witnessed and experienced and impacted the enormous changes unfolding round them.”
Folks, if I were teaching a class in American History, I’d be tempted to dump the boring textbooks and just assign half a dozen of Shaara’s novels. I think the kids would learn a whole lot more about their country and they’d become INTERESTED during the process.
Have you read any of Jeff Shaara’s books?
What author of historical fiction do you most enjoy?
[JLS # 288]