Call me what you will but I LOVE historical fiction. It’s one of my favorite genres.
However, I am one of the first to admit that a lot of historical fiction novelists are much better at writing either the historical aspect or the fictional aspect, but not both. So when I find a work that manages to integrate history and fiction seamlessly and handles both effectively, I consider it a gem. Michael Shaara’s classic The Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg is just such a gem (and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize – maybe I should be a judge?)
I first read this book a few years ago when I took a class on the American Civil War. I remembered really liking it but couldn’t remember the book itself very well. So, I decided to revisit it this year, and I’m glad I did because I probably enjoyed it even more the second time around.
Shaara tells the story of Gettysburg through the perspective of several of the highest-ranking men on the battlefield during those fateful days of early July 1863. The primary point-of-view characters are Union general John Buford, an experienced veteran officer; Union colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a professor of rhetoric until the year before; Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia; and Confederate general James Longstreet, Lee’s most trusted subordinate.
As someone who loves reading historical fiction, I have a real love-hate relationship with books that use famous historical figures as characters. In my opinion, it’s hard for an author to do so effectively because it’s easy for readers and others to point to all of the flaws in these depictions–the historical figure is oversimplified or is depicted inaccurately–or the character just doesn’t work very well as a character because the author is writing a caricature that touches on all of the things readers would expect of this character but without lending him or her a recognizably human personality.
Again, I think it goes back to the whole “balancing both history and fiction” problem. So, as a general rule, I am less likely to read books that focus on real historical people; however, all of my favorite historical fiction actually is about real people. (I’m like Walt Whitman. I contain multitudes.) All of that is to say, I think Shaara does a wonderful job of making these historical figures ring true according to the historical record but also seem like real people. He is able to effectively inhabit each individual character’s psyche and their conflicted opinions/emotions about the battle before them.
Another thing I liked about the book is that it is well-researched, but it also doesn’t feel like Shaara is cramming every single thing he learned while he was researching into the book. (That’s another pet peeve of mine with historical fiction.) I enjoyed how deeply he delved into the military tactics and strategy of the battle, but he did so in a way that will interest history buffs without alienating readers who are unfamiliar with the battle. (I really liked his maps that he included for each day. More books should have maps.)
Overall, Shaara’s The Killer Angels is an excellent example of historical fiction done well. It has an action-packed plot that is both thrilling and heartbreaking, as well as fascinating characters. And does all that while immersing the reader in its historical setting.
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Recommended for those who enjoy the work of John Jakes, Bernard Cornwell, and/or Sharon Kay Penman.
Have you read The Killer Angels? Do you like historical fiction? What’s your favorite historical fiction book or author? What’s your favorite historical period to read about? Tell us in the comments!