Review: A Blaze of Glory by Jeff Shaara

ArtSunday at Scholars & Rogues

By the time I was two hundred pages into Jeff Shaara’s new novel—roughly halfway—I wondered how an author could write so much and say so little.

It picked up, thankfully. I wouldn’t have known that, though, had I not forced myself to stick with it.

I had high hopes for A Blaze of Glory, which tells the story of the battle of Shiloh. The Western Theater gets ignored so much that I was glad a writer in Shaara’s league was going to give it some attention. A Blaze of Glory will be the first in a trilogy that will cover Vicksburg and then “the final chapter of the war in Georgia and the Carolinas” (apparently Chickamauga and Chattanooga don’t matter, not to say anything of Stones River).

As in previous books, Shaara adopts the technique used so well by his father, Michael, in The Killer Angels: looking at the sweep of history through the perspective of a few key characters. The major distinction between the Shaaras, though, is that The Killer Angels was a character-driven story. Sure, the battle of Gettysburg happens, but the novel is really about the characters. The younger Shaara, tends to focus on the sweep of history itself, so the characters serve as convenient literary devices for advancing the story. The novels, then, become more plot driven than character driven.

As well written as Albert Sidney Johnston’s death scene was, for instance, I didn’t care a lick about it. Shaara apparently didn’t either. After Johnston dies, the narrative thread Shaara had been telling through him gets picked up by Isham Harris, governor of Tennessee. Johnston, as a character, was totally disposable.

Similarly, Shaara adopts Union Brigadier Benjamin Prentiss as a character only when he shifts his narrative attention to the Hornet’s Nest two-thirds of the way into the book. Because Prentiss had not appeared as a character earlier in the novel, it’s hard for a reader to be invested in him, especially when the battle narrative is so effective in the section. It’s action, not character, that drives the scene.

(As a study in contrast, look at the way the elder Shaara used Joshua Chamberlain as a major character throughout The Killer Angels. Because readers get invested in Chamberlain from the novel’s beginning, his big scene on Little Round top comes as the climax of Chamberlain’s narrative arc, so Chamberlain earns his laurels. Readers care about his victory, not just the victory. Chamberlain has such popular cache today in large part because Shaara made him such an effective character.)

Jeff Shaara spends a lot of time trying to do characterization in A Blaze of Glory. Unfortunately, it all comes off as little more than hand-writing. Southerners wring their hands over the invading Yankees. Confederate officers wring their hands because they don’t have enough supplies or because they can’t keep the movement of their troops secret. Union officers wring their hands over army politics. Soldiers wring their hands because they miss home.

Shaara tries to keep things as historically accurate as he can, and he’s good about plugging in little factual details. He does a good job, for instance, of working in the field tourniquet that Albert Sidney Johnston had in his pocket that could’ve saved him from bleeding to death. It’s become one of the great pieces of Civil War irony, but in the novel, the tourniquet’s discovery feels authentic in the moment. That’s hard to do.

Other details feel less authentic. For instance, Shaara is sure to mention that Sherman gets shot in the hand near the opening of the battle, but then he essentially forgets about it. Apparently, a hand wound doesn’t hurt. Later, Shaara tries to explain it away: Sherman “tried to ignore that, felt no pain, the bandage a bulky inconvenience, little else.” I didn’t buy it.

In a nod to the fashions of modern scholarship, Shaara imbues the war with a moral component it didn’t have at the time. “I love the darkies,” one Union soldier says. “Come down here to set ‘em free.” Of course, the war didn’t explicitly turn into a war of emancipation for another five months after Shiloh, and even when it did, the move was highly controversial among the soldiers.

If his characterization is weak, Shaara’s battle scenes are readable, and there’s a scene between Sherman and Grant on the night of April 6 that’s really well written. As a stylist, he has a terrible tenancy to string phrases together, though, so his sentences get ungainly. For example: “He glanced up, still the stars, darkness and noises, and a cascade of questions.” I can’t even imagine how I would diagram that. Here’s a sentence that hits seventy-four words in length (italics added):

All around him, he watched as the white blossoms were cut down, a steady shower that seemed to drift down on the soldiers. He stared at one man, Willis, his filthy blue coat flecked with the small flowers, the flowers on his hat, and Bauer’s paralyzing fear began to change, something else calling him away, the bizarre and beautiful image, so many men doing their deadly work, and yet there was peacefulness, the firing so steady it seemed like a hard wind, and all the while, the air around them seemed to bring that piece of home. It looked like a snowstorm.

Neat image; ungainly sentence.

And since I’m on my high horse, I’ll complain about one more thing: Shaara uses ellipses like canister, plugging them in any time he needs a dramatic…pause. (That’s one of my pet peeves. Ellipses are supposed to be used only when a writer omits something.)

To be honest, I don’t remember Shaara being such a mediocre writer. While he’s not in his father’s league, his first two Civil War novels, Gods & Generals and The Last Full Measure were credible efforts, and I really enjoyed Gone for Soldiers. His Revolutionary War novels were okay but a little slow, so that’s where I left off with him. I own the WWI and WWII novels but haven’t read them. Coming back to Blaze of Glory, I had high hopes, but I constantly felt like Shaara was just phoning it in. I couldn’t wait for the battle of Shiloh to be over.