In spare, almost biblical prose, Gary Paulsen writes of the horrors of combat in a Civil War novella that puts a powerful, more contemporary spin on Stephen Crane's classic The Red Badge of Courage
. Based on the life of a real boy, it tells the story of Charley Goddard, who lies his way into the Union Army at the age of 15. Charley has never been anyplace beyond Winona, Minnesota, and thinks war would be a great adventure. And it is--at first--as his regiment marches off through cheering crowds and pretty, flag-waving girls. But then comes the battle. Charley screams, "Make it stop now!" disbelieving that anything so horrible could be real. Paulsen is unsparing in the details of what actually happens on the battlefield: the living men suddenly blown into pieces, the agony and fear, the noise and terror, the stinking corpses. After many battles, Charley is wounded and sent home an old man before he is 20, his will to live destroyed by combat fatigue--leaving him with a "soldier's heart." Paulsen has received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the ALAN Award, and several Newbery Honor awards for previous work, but this superb, small masterpiece transcends any of his earlier titles in its remarkable, memorable intensity and power. (Ages 12 to 15) --Patty Campbell
From Publishers Weekly
Addressing the most fundamental themes of life and death, the versatile Paulsen produces a searing antiwar story. He bases his protagonist, Charley Goddard, on an actual Civil War soldier, a 15-year-old from Minnesota who lied about his age and ended up participating in most of the war's major battles. At first Paulsen's Charley is fired up by patriotic slogans and his own naive excitement; in a rare intrusion into the narrative, the author makes it clear that ending slavery was not the impetus: "Never did they speak of slavery. Just about the wrongheadedness of the Southern 'crackers' and how they had to teach Johnny Reb a lesson." But Charley's first battle?Bull Run?immediately disabuses him of his notions about honor and glory. A few sparely written passages describe the terror of the gunfire and the smoke from the cannons. Interwoven with these descriptions, a brilliant, fast-moving evocation of Charley's thoughts shows the boy's shocked realization of the price of war, his absolute certainty that he will die and his sudden understanding of the complex forces that prevent him from fleeing. Details from the historical record scorch the reader's memory: congressmen bring their families to picnic and watch the fighting that first day at Bull Run; soldiers pile the bodies of the dead into a five-foot-high wall to protect themselves from a winter wind. By the time Charley is finally struck down, at Gettysburg, he has seen it all: "At last he was right, at last he was done, at last he was dead." He is not in fact dead, but a victim of "soldier's heart," defined in an eloquent foreword as a contemporaneous term for what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. Paulsen wages his own campaign for the audience's hearts and minds strategically and with great success. Elsewhere, as in The Rifle, he has told stories in service to a message; here the message follows from the story ineluctably. Charley comes across fully human, both his vulnerabilities and strengths becoming more pronounced as the novel progresses. Warfare, too, emerges complexly-while a lesser writer might attempt to teach readers to shun war by dint of the protagonist's profound disgust, Paulsen compounds the horrors of the battlefield by demonstrating how they trigger Charley's own bloodlust. Charley cannot recover from his years of war; in a smaller but more hopeful way, neither may the audience. Paulsen's storytelling is so psychologically true that readers will feel they have lived through Charley's experiences. Ages 12-up.
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