Gunfine At Gettysburg (Chose Your Own Adventure #151), by Doug Wilhelm
Once upon a time I was very fond of reading choose your own adventure novels , although I do not remember ever reading this one. I requested this book from the library, despite it being for a considerably younger audience, mainly because it serves as a thoughtful comparison to an adult choose your own adventure novel I am reading alongside this one as one of my occasional synoptical reading plans. Although this book is (obviously) a work of fiction, it is a work of considerable nuance as it places the reader in some ethical dilemmas and tailors the writing in large part to the decisions that are made by the reader. As a result, this novel appears different to the reader depending on the worldview in which they make their choices, and also rewards bravery and punishes cowardice in very complex ways that encourage the reader to think about themselves as part of history. All of this is to say that I found this novel surprisingly advanced given the fact that it is written to preteen boys, not exactly the audience where writers tend to provide thoughtful nuance as a general rule.
Like most choose your own adventure novels, this relatively short book of just over 100 pages is not to be read from beginning to end, as it would be nearly entirely incomprehensible in that fashion. Rather, the book begins with a setup where the reader is placed in the position of a preteen boy growing up near the small town of Gettysburg during the Civil War and naturally curious to see the gunfire only to get caught up in the reality of war as opposed to romantic play warfare. Through the narrative the author has to choose what matters the most to them, and whether it is worthwhile for them to risk their own well-being in the face of rebel soldiers to help prevent the kidnapping of free blacks into slavery, or whether a desire to protect the well-being of one’s side (the Union) would justify omitting details that would be helpful to General Lee in his planning of his attacks on the second day. And so it goes. The endings of the story vary widely as well, as in some of the endings one is shot dead, in others one witnesses wounded soldiers of both sides convalescing in peace, helping a Confederate deserter who is about the age of the protagonist, or listening to the Gettysburg Address with the free black one has helped save from Confederate kidnappers.
And that is the real achievement, I think, that this book offers. Many readers going into this book, just like many young people growing up in the Civil War or afterward, have had a romantic view of the rebels and their behavior in the Civil War. Yet this book both subtly and persistently undercuts the romance of warfare in general and the romance of supporting the Confederates in particular by showing how the rebels conscripted children to fight on the side of kidnapping, slaveowning oppressors. I personally think this is a masterful novel, in that it shows children playing at war at its beginning with the protagonist always picking the side of Johnny Reb and ends with the reader likely somewhat in the process of being disillusioned about the reality of war and its failure to match up with the play version of it. While admittedly I may be a more sophisticated reader of this book than the average one, this book serves a valuable purpose in giving the reader at least the imagination of the gap between warfare as juvenile play and warfare as a life and death matter.
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