Don't just read the first sentence, please:
This book has all the elements of a winning historical novel -- a great (and large) cast of characters, solid research, rich setting -- but it just doesn't come together in the way it should. But it frequently comes close. What it really needed to be successful is pretty simple: More. More of just about everything. Longer scenes, more developed characters, more developed storylines. The book covers the years from 1857 to 1864 in 358 pages -- roughly 51 pages a year (with some of those taken by pictures) -- you just can't do a whole lot in that space. Longer scenes could've given the chance for characters and events to develop, for nuance to be shown.
The only thing it didn't need more of was dialogue. Well, that's not exactly true, it could've used more, but primarily it needed better dialogue. There was one scene, and only one, that I didn't cringe almost every time someone spoke. It was wooden, stiff, artificial.
The book follows a group of friends and people they know from their part of Illinois in the days leading up to and through the heart of the Civil War -- just about everyone mentioned was a real person that the historian Huelskamp researched thoroughly. The book is littered with photos of the people, letters and other documents supporting his work. Some of them are political movers and shakers, some are in the military, and some are citizens worrying about loved ones.
The characters -- as historically accurate as they might be -- were drawn pretty thinly. If Huelskamp is going to talk about interpretation of historical figures, he needs to interpret them multi-dimensionally. I wanted to like everyone (well, except Loomis -- who no one is supposed to like), but I couldn't muster up affection for anyone, there wasn't enough of anyone to really appreciate.
- Beyond the clearly extensive historical research (and documentation!), this book had a few strengths that I want to focus on:
- The Battle Scenes were great -- the internal dialogue of the combatants detracted a lot from that, but the description of the events, the action was just about everything you'd hope for.
- In the early days of the war, one of the friends is killed -- seeing the emotion when the group gets the news was a high point of the book, Huelskamp captures it perfectly and then ruined the moment with clumsy writing.
- The best part of the book is in the aftermath of a battle concerning two friends comforting each other after being wounded -- it was just perfect.
The book could've been really strong; maybe as a trilogy (or duology), it could've been great. But in its too-short form, it was just almost a good book. I bet Huelskamp's historical writing is really something -- his fiction? Maybe one day. The richness of the historical work here does elevate this over a lot of historical fiction I've read recently, so I'm going to give it the 3rd star.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from the author in exchange for my honest thoughts.