Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run by Michael Hemphill and Sam Riddleburger

Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run by Michael Hemphill and Sam Riddleburger

I grew up in Maryland. Which means that every third field trip was to some vast undulant green field that once played host to one of the big bloody shindigs of the Civil War. Bull Run, Appomattox, Antietam. Harper's Ferry, Yorktown. Gettysburg if you were lucky, because at least then there was a side trip to the farmers' market, where all the bad kids bought bullwhips which the teachers confiscated for the bus ride home.

Ohhh, god that stuff was boring to me. Whatever visualizations the Park Service dreamed up: films, dioramas, 3-D maps with little lights, rangers in uniform... I never could get it up for the Civil War. Still can't. Seriously, I'm a full-on adult - a librarian, a photo archivist, a reader - who has never given a rat's rosy rumpus about the American Civil War. It's embarrassing but true.

Which is why Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run has me SO IMPRESSED. Twelve-year-old Stonewall (named after the general by his obsessed parents) shares my outlook - he's been frog-marched to Civil War re-enactments every weekend since he was six, and he knows enough about the Civil War to know that he is not interested in it in the least.

I have to say, I was a little dubious at first. Those obsessed parents are pretty monolithic in their disdain, disregard, and disapproval of Stonewall, and Stonewall is good and sick of weekends without his PlayStation. I wasn't looking forward to, say, a father-son adventure during which they Learn To Appreciate Each Other's Skills And/Or Outlook.

Luckily, when Stonewall is catapulted back in time to the real Battle of First Manassas (aka Bull Run, the first battle of the Civil War), his parents are left behind, presumably to putter around pretending to shoot other History Channel addicts in the twenty-first century. No more jerky dad 'til the very end.

Instead, we get the entire Confederate Army, such as it was at this point in the war: barefoot and smelly, raggedly armed and freshly learning the terrifying and painful realities of battle. And Stonewall's reaction is even more visceral - no matter what words Stonewall uses in his fast-paced, detailed narration, you know that he is really saying "Holy crap!"

The action is easy to follow, though the decision to include a map of the battlefield is a good one. The supporting characters, though a bit broadly drawn, satisfy. The conclusions that Stonewall comes to - about war, slavery, freedom, and bravery - are strongly supported by the events that he witnesses. No murky philosophizin' here:
Most of them, I bet, had visions when they enlisted of doing heroic things in battle. But I wonder how many had thought about what really happens in war, that you might really get shot, get killed. I don't think my father and his reenactors think too much about this part of a Civil War soldier's life. How can you and still want to reenact it? (italics mine)
By the end of the book, Stonewall has a mission that reverberates into his own time, a pretty girl to share it with, and most importantly, a reason to attend next weekend's reenactment. Which I assume is also a reason for these authors to write another book. I hope so, because Stonewall Hinkleman humanizes the Civil War like nothing I've ever read.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

It's funny, because I agree with everything in your review, but I just couldn't get past having Stonewall Jackson presented as a hero.