With Lee In Virginia, by G.A. Henty
Some time ago a friend of mine gave this audiobook as a feast present, and a few other people got other volumes. This particular volume is an audio theater reader with a talented vocal cast (including Sean Astin, Kirk Cameron, and Brian Blessed, among others), and is clearly aimed for a young audience. The subject material of this book is somewhat problematic, in that it is clearly designed to present “extraordinary adventures” on the part of those supporting the rebel cause, and given the cast it appeared pretty likely even before listening to the audiobook that the author would try to glorify the Confederate cause and present the rebel hero as a brave and courageous man and present the Confederates as good Christians. So, obviously, as someone whose sympathy for the cause of the South is limited to nonexistent , this is a book with a point of view that was deeply troubling and bothersome. Without a doubt the Civil War makes for good audio theater, with its dramatic battles, but the Confederate side makes for terrible heroes, with their wicked cause and corrupt conduct, about which there will be more to say here.
As might be expected, this book is full of incident and seeks to present its hero, young Vincent Wingfield, as a good Christian young gentleman who improbably survives being wounded by a canon shot at First Bull Run, a murderous feud with a cruel neighbor that involves fugitive slaves and that neighbor turning into a galvanized Yankee after attempts to escape from Elmira are only partly successful after the hero and some friends are taken captive at Antietam, as well as nearly being executed as a spy outside of Petersburg, among other scrapes, including one which leads him to be the host of a somewhat unwilling young woman refugee after antagonizing a local ruffian gang. As might be expected, these escapes happen as a result of improbable circumstances, through the loyalty of slaves whose skills approach “magic Negro” levels and whose devotion to a kind master is quite out of step with contemporary standards or the likely historical reality. This book seeks to make most Northerners rather unsympathetic, contrary to historical reality, but its attempts to paint the hero, Lee, and Jackson as noble and duty-bound heroes itself cuts against historical reality in several ways. For one, the rebel officers, for all of their talk about duty and honor, themselves had betrayed their duty and oaths of loyalty to the United States government and so were without honor and acting contrary to their duties to crush rebellion. For another, in painting the protagonist in a sympathetic fashion, the author resorts to undercutting Southern society by pointing out how unjust the laws were that allowed people to beat women and children, and that made it a crime to teach slaves to read and that made it a bad thing to wish for the abolition of slavery. Likewise, the author’s comment at the end that Lee had been fighting for states’ rights ignores the fact that the only states’ rights under dispute were the right of people to own slaves and the right of states to protect slavery without any federal interference. The book is a dishonest one from the core.
And that is what makes reviewing a book like this such a painful and unpleasant chore. The book has some terrible tropes, and the book is about as racially acceptable in its viewpoint as Song of the South or Gone With The Wind, two pretty terrible films from a historical perspective. The film’s historical perspective is bogus, its attempts to present the South as an honorable and Christian society misguided, its pointing to sharecropping as a just solution to the problem of dealing with freed slaves after the war deeply troubling, and its biased view towards the two sides of the Civil War offensive. This is not a book that can in any shape or form be recommended to children, because they will likely absorb its historical perspective without being very critical towards it. The fact that this bogus history is wrapped up with romance and excitement only makes it more likely to serve as poison wrapped in a sugary coating designed to appeal to young audiences. This book can only safely be recommended to those who see it as an example of misguided neoconfederate propaganda, attempting to assuage the guilt of a ruined South that had brought its disaster upon itself, rather than anything that children can enjoy without a great deal of instruction in the actual facts of the matter.
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