Thursday, March 8, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: A Soldier's Heart -- Gary Paulsen (Spoilers)

When fifteen-year-old Charley Goddard heard about the Civil War through posters and recruiters, it sounded glorious. What an opportunity for a man to prove his worth. With people expecting the conflict to only last two months, he figured he better sign up or he'd miss all the excitement. Besides, he can send the eleven dollars a month he'd make home to his widowed Mother and help the family.

Charley lies to the recruiter and gets accepted to the Union Army. Initially, all his regiment is doing is drilling. They're so poorly provisioned, the soldiers are merely raising their rifles and pretending to fire because they don't have the ammunition to spare.

Then, battle comes and it's nothing like what he expected. With poor training and worse rations, Charlie's facing a sea of gray-coated soldiers. Many are much like him, he learns in a late-night trading session with a Rebel.

At one point, Charley's sent back to the surgeon's tent because he's covered in blood, but feeling no pain. When they finally get to him, they realize none of it is his. He's sent back to the front after sheltering behind a wall of dead bodies they've constructed to shelter the surgical tent from the winds.

Charlie does win a prize. A Confederate cap-and-ball pistol. Everyone back home wants one, but Charlie notes you've got to kill a Confederate officer to get one.

Inevitably, he is wounded. The physical wound never heals. In a postscript, the author notes the psychological wound never healed, either. "His wound and the stress took him, and he died in December 1868. He was twenty-three years old."

This thin volume was written for young adults. At 106 pages, which includes a nice bibliography, the book's a breeze to read in less than two hours. It will take you a lot longer to forget A Soldier's Heart. If ever.

And, no, I don't think that's such a bad thing at all. This book's designed to reach kids at an age where they can learn lessons about "man's inhumanity to man" that might just shape their characters. Personifying the lesson in a young man about their age is a brilliant way for Gary Paulsen to get the message across.

War is hell. The award-winning author did an amazing job of illustrating this concept. How many times has the history repeated itself? Young men have signed up for countless wars believing in a false image of heroism and a quick victory. Today's military offers ad campaigns performed by popular musicians targeted at the young men from poorer parts of town who'll be most likely to see the military as a good career choice--even with a devastating war in Afghanistan going on and another potentially coming in Iran.

Details are spare. If you're thinking the book will give your young adult reader nightmares, it probably won't. I've seen worse in primetime television. If the kids are playing any kind of video games, they've definitely inflicted worse on their pixellated enemies.

The realistic ending was handled brilliantly by Paulsen. According to an Army study, the suicide rate among American troops has hit an all-time high. Today's youth needs to understand what they're getting themselves into before they sign up. It's not all gaining skills and self-esteem.

Army Suicide Study

"A Soldier's Heart" was the Civil War era name for a condition we now call PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The condition has gone through several names. In World War II, it was called "Battle Fatigue." In World War I, "Shell Shock." Men, and now women, had seen more battle than they could take. Up until recently, the soldier was simply sent home for the family to deal with. Now, talk therapy, drugs, and a new brain reprogramming therapy called EMDR are helping soldiers learn to cope.

This review resulted as a challenge back in January 2011 to YA author Megan Messina Bostic to read A Soldier's Heart because of a discussion on an online forum. A mother objected to her eighth grade child having to read A Soldier's Heart because it was just too depressing. Neither Megan or I are strict adherents to The Happy Ending particularly since Life just isn't always like that and Happy Endings set up false expectations.

Here's a link to the original blog entry: Original Blog Entry

Rebecca McFarland Kyle
March 2012

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