Sunday, October 4, 2015

Reading Through History: Bull Run by Paul Fleischman (1993)

In sixteen different voices from both sides of the Civil War, Paul Fleischman's 1993 novel Bull Run relates the events of the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Included in the cast are men and women, black and white, who range from soldiers on the battlefield to artists and newspaper reporters, a young fife player, and a real-life general named Irvin McDowell.

There are a lot of characters in this short book, and even with wood carvings at the start of each chapter to differentiate one from the other, it was really hard to keep track of all the different storylines and personalities. As I read, I continually had to flip back to earlier chapters to make sure I was thinking about the correct character at the correct time. Though the battle is really the overarching plot that holds the story together, the constant shifts in perspective made it feel as though there was no real cohesive storyline. I really would have benefited from a prologue contextualizing the battle, as well as a dramatis personae introducing all the characters.

That said, this book is a powerful illustration of the impact of not just this battle, but of the Civil War as a whole on the people of the United States. By hearing stories from both sides, the reader really has the chance to understand each point of view and to empathize with both Southerners and Northerners, rather than simply taking a side. Because there are 8 characters from each side of the war, each viewpoint is represented equally and while the author does not sensationalize anything that happens, he also does not sugar-coat the pain and sadness of war, so readers really come to understand the horrors of the Civil War in an age appropriate way. Fleischman also avoids inserting his authorial voice into the text. There is no editorializing; the facts merely speak for themselves and allow readers to discuss the issues and draw their own conclusions.

The note at the end of the book states which characters are from the North and which are from the South, and it suggests reading the story as a reader's theater performance. Considering the trouble I had keeping the characters sorted out in my mind, I think a performance would be the ideal way to really appreciate this book. I also really wished I had kept a chart to refer to as I was reading and would recommend doing so to any potential reader of the book.

Overall, Bull Run makes a great starting point for delving into a deeper analysis of the rationale, impact, and experience of the Civil War. It would be especially useful in a classroom setting, where students could each take on a part and act out the story, but with proper preparation and prompting, the story can also be enjoyed independently. I will definitely keep this one on my list for future homeschooling lessons!

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