Saturday, December 3, 2011

Rifles for Watie (1958)

Rifles for Watie is a really good historical fiction about the western front of the Civil War.  The protagonist, Kansas native Jefferson Davis Bussey, enlists in the Union army at the age of 16 and goes to war.  The book covers the 4 years that comprise the Civil War, and focuses on the war in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas.  (The area referred to as Texas is now Oklahoma.)  A major part of the war here was between rival Indian groups that have aligned themselves with either the Union cause or the Confederates, and although  Jeff comes to realize that neither of the sides is wholly right or wholly wrong, he remains true to the Union and their fight to allow all men freedom. 

Jeff served in both armies.  He spent about a year behind the lines with the Confederates as a spy.  And in that time, he came to admire and understand the men he fought with.  As the back of the book says, "Jeff Bussey is probably the only soldier to fight the Civil War from both sides--and understand each."

I really enjoyed this book.  It contained great examples of honor, bravery, camaraderie, loyalty.  However, I thought it was too mature for the age group Newbery targets.  There are vivid descriptions of battle, (dead and wounded men, shooting, amputations, etc.) an execution, falling in love (see quote below), cruelty and hatred between Jeff and one of his commanding officers.  I think it would be difficult to write a historical war novel without those things and it is a really good book, just not for 3-5 grades.

Quotes I enjoyed:

On Jeff's first going into battle.  "He began to recall all the mean things he had ever done and how he might never have time to atone for them.  Life was running out on him.  He wasn't ready to die.  He didn't want to be rushed into it.  He needed more time to think about it.  After all, a person died just once.  Anybody who let himself get killed was just plain stupid." (p. 132)

Why I think the love part is a bit mature. Although this is about the extent of the "kissy part."-- "As their lips met and his arms went around her waist, he felt a blissful melting within him, an overpowering rapture that he had never known nor dreamed existed.  For a moment there was no sound save that of their quick breathing and the leaves of the redbud tree...As he held her close, Jeff's lips caressed her eyebrow, her cheek, her ear.  He could feel her heart pounding beneath her bodice." (p. 297)

When exhausted in his escape from the Confederate side back to the Union with the intelligence he gathered.  "He braced and began to labor up the rise, concentrating on each step and thinking of Pete Millholland and his words, 'You can always go farther than you think you can.'  It was funny how a fellow could lie moldering in his grave and still his words could go right on helping people." (p. 309)

Keith, Harold.  Rifles for Watie.  HarperCollins.  1958.

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