#TBT: YA Novels Take Teens Back to the Civil War and It. Is. Awesome.

#TBT: YA Novels Take Teens Back to the Civil War and It. Is. Awesome.

At some point, a stereotypically boring Social Studies teacher probably made you read The Red Badge of Courage, Across Five Aprils, or Rifles for Watie. There’s nothing wrong with these books. They tell compelling stories through teenage eyes that give very accurate accounts of various Civil War experiences. I have used them in my own classroom. But these novels are, for lack of a better term, old. That doesn’t make them unnecessary—far from it. It’s just a fact that begs this question: what are the modern equivalents of these time-honored classics? What themes are more recent works exploring, and how do the stories reflect contemporary notions of the Civil War?

To answer that, I’ve reviewed a handful of Middle Grade and Young Adult Civil War books from the last ten or so years ranging in topic and presentation. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but a light survey that caught my eye as an 8th Grade History teacher and YA author who spends considerable time teaching the event and writing for the target audience.

Unique Presentations of Slavery and Race

Screenshot 2016-03-21 at 6.45.40 PMLester, Julius. Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 2005.

This middle grade novel retells the true and horrible story of “The Weeping Time”, the largest slave auction ever held in American history on March 2 and 3 of 1859. The play format gives the reader a front-row seat to the emotions and motivations of each principal character: the indebted plantation owner, Pierce Butler, who mourns the loss of his property—just not enough to keep them; his two daughters, who witness the horror with varied responses; and most notably the young house slave Emma, Lester’s hero, who has no idea that she will appear on the auction block.

Lester creatively peppers the novel with time-hopping interludes that show each character’s future self reflecting back on that horrible day—how it scarred and changed them. Though gut wrenching and vivid, Lester doesn’t leave us in tears: Emma escapes to Philadelphia and eventually onto Canada. True, her husband later dies while fighting in the Civil War, but Emma has her own children, and ends the novel poetically sharing her life story with her granddaughter, over tea. Still, sorrow remains the constant theme of this book, specifically divine sorrow: the torrential rain of that March day was, as Emma’s father says, “God’s tears”.

Screenshot 2016-03-21 at 6.47.48 PMMyers, Walter Dean. Riot. New York: Egmont USA, 2009.

Similarly unique in presentation—this time a fast-moving screenplay—Riot retells New York’s bloody draft riots of 1863 through the eyes of fifteen-year-old, biracial Claire Johnson. The daughter of Innkeepers John (black) and Ellen Johnson (Irish), Myers sets Claire’s search for identity cleverly against the backdrop of a city foaming with racial tension. Angered that Lincoln’s conscription unevenly targets them, poor Irish lash out at the wealthy who can afford the $300 substitution fee and African Americans who are taking their jobs. Battle-weary soldiers from Gettysburg arrive to maintain order and end up suppressing the riots with particular brutality. So what does all this mean for Claire, who has a black father but looks as Irish as her mother?

This longing to transcend biracial identity drives the novel. “I don’t see why you have to be a black person or a white person,” Clair tells her mother. “Why can’t you just be a person?” Later, Claire questions the notion of race entirely. “I didn’t choose to be black…I just wanted to be a human being. I just wanted to be whoever I saw in the mirror, without a race or a place in life. What is so wrong with that?” By using Claire as a lens to view the draft riots, Myers forces the reader to question race then and now. Coupled with the rapid pace, honest racial dialogue, and more then a few harrowing chases down New York City alleyways, Riot is poised to capture and challenge young readers.

Not-Boring Narrative Nonfiction

Screenshot 2016-03-21 at 6.49.10 PMSwanson, James L. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer: The Search for John Wilkes Booth. New York: Scholastic Press, 2009.

Fact: young adults don’t love nonfiction (nerdy honors kids not included). But when the English Department at my school added Chasing Lincoln’s Killer to their curriculum, our eighth graders took to it. Abridged from Swanson’s bestselling adult version, The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killers, young readers will have no trouble keeping up with the fast, thriller-esque work that chronicles Lincoln’s tragic end and the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. I’m not saying they’re going to be dying for it, but by and large they don’t hate it—a big win for teachers.

Relying on a host of eyewitness accounts and other primary sources, Swanson weaves together the alternating narratives of Lincoln, his cabinet, Booth, and the co-conspirators. Little-known players also appear: actress Laura Keene, who cradled the dying president in the theatre box; Sergeant Robinson, the male nurse who heroically fought off Lewis Powell thus saving Secretary Seward’s life; photographer Mathew Brady, who captured the crime scene; and Thomas Jones, Confederate Secret Service operative who ferried Booth across the Potomac. While the plot loses some tension relatively early after Booth shoots Lincoln, Swanson takes the reader on a heart-pounding chase through the Maryland and Virginia countryside that culminates in Booth’s own death. Filled with era drawings, newspapers, maps, and a superb array of photographs, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is YA nonfiction at its finest.

Seriously, Disturbingly Dark

Screenshot 2016-03-21 at 6.50.32 PMHunt, Laird. Kind One. Minneapolis, Minn.: Coffee House Press, 2012.

This novel takes you to a dark place and (almost) leaves you there. Told primarily from the perspective of Ginny, a fourteen-year-old girl who marries the abusive, slave owning Linus Lancaster, Kind One examines rape, torture, complicity, and redemption on a pre-Civil War Kentucky farm insidiously named “Paradise.” Linus Lancaster is the archetypal slave-owning monster: tall, muscular, hard-drinking, and complete master of his pig-farming domain. His particular brand of sadism mirrors the slaughtering of the pigs he keeps: “Linus Lancaster liked us all to take a turn at the killing…those of us who ate the most ought to kill the most [he said]. That was me and Linus Lancaster.” For six years Linus has his way with Ginny until he becomes bored of her and begins “visiting” nightly his two teenage slaves, Cleome and Zinnia (who may also be his daughters, Hunt isn’t entirely clear on this). Driven by jealousy or disgust or both, the battered Ginny begins assaulting the girls she once treated like daughters; here Hunt is clear: abuse begets abuse. But when Linus is murdered (no spoilers), the girls turn on Ginny with vindictive sadism, leading to Hunt’s other motif: savagery begets savagery.

Hunt interweaves the brutal narrative with Ginny as an old woman, hinting that forgiveness—despite all the horrible things she’s done and endured—isn’t out of reach. And he tells the story’s (thankfully) redemptive end through the eyes of those around Ginny during and after those awful years, a captivating technique that alleviates pressure and stimulates curiosity. Though stunningly written, I won’t be book talking this to my middle schoolers; objectively speaking, however, Hunt has crafted a haunting look at a demented set of circumstances that took place on many a farm in the Civil War era.

A New Take on Divided Loyalty

Screenshot 2016-03-21 at 6.51.58 PMNickerson, Jane. The Mirk and Midnight Hour. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

I planned this as my guilty pleasure read, but as the pages turned it became something richer—something deeper and more nuanced. Set during a smartly narrow window at the war’s opening year, the story centers on seventeen-year-old Violet Dancey who finds herself running the family farm after her brother is killed at Fort Donelson and her father goes off to fight. Instead of the war itself driving the novel—an exhausted and often alienating feature of YA Civil War books—several unique conflicts propel the plot. New family arrives, including an insufferable stepsister and a cunning, blockade-running cousin; Violet befriends the slaves of a local doctor rumored to practice ‘hoodoo’; and most prominently, Violet discovers a wounded Union officer deep in the woods being kept alive by someone whose motives aren’t immediately clear.

And it’s that secret relationship which forces Violet to confront the inconsistences of her world. The soldier she’s caring for—the soldier she is falling in love with—fought at Fort Donelson; he’s the enemy, maybe the one who fired the bullet that killed her brother, prompting Violet to question her loyalty to the Cause. He also forces her to finally deal with her own nagging suspicion that owning another human is wrong. “…your ‘property’ is men, women and children,” the lieutenant tells her, a truth Violet knows but struggles to calibrate.

Fitting, then, that it’s the family slave, Laney—Violet’s only true friend in the book—who poignantly diagnoses this struggle to love someone you’re taught to hate: “Everything’s different when you get to know folks.” By making this “getting to know folks” the driving theme of the book, Nickerson anchors the narrative in wartime relationships and the difficult task of boundary breaking which young adults will find compelling.

Matthew Landis

For nine years Matthew Landis has attempted to slay boredom wherever it lurks in his 8th grade Social Studies classroom at Tamanend Middle School. An alum of Villanova's Graduate History program (2013), he recently clawed his way into publishing by signing book deals for his Young Adult debut, THE JUDAS SOCIETY (Sky Pony, 2017) and his Middle Grade debut, PRIVATE OLIVER PRICHARD (Dial/Penguin Random House, 2018). He hopes one day to achieve whatever level of literary success allows him to summer in Cape Town with his wife and daughter and go on safari pretty much whenever they want. You can read more about his books at www.matthew-landis.com, email him at author.matthewlandis@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @Matthew_Landis.

One Reply to “#TBT: YA Novels Take Teens Back to the Civil War and It. Is. Awesome.”

  1. Thank you! My 8th grade granddaughter chose 5 Nights at Freddie’s as her assigned novel. As her independent study tutor, I’m looking for something to introduce her to the next chapter. . . Civil War. She’s mixed race so this will be a double-header for her! I’ll find your first recommendation for her indulgence!

    You’ve just made my day! See you on Instagram. Thank you, greatly.

    Grandma Mary

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