The Journal Of James Edward Pease: A Civil War Soldier (My Name Is America), by Jim Murphy
This book is the author’s first novel for a middle grade audience and for a debut audience it is quite accomplished. That is not to say that this is a perfect book. As is frequently the case the author frames this particular work by having it be something that is relatable to young people by having the protagonist be assigned to write a diary and grow into the process of being a writer through the practice and guidance of his officers and even to find himself rising through the ranks due to his bravery and humanity. The author finds himself trying to square the circle of arguing that someone can be good without God by portraying the protagonist as a runaway from overly cruel Christian parents, which demonstrates his own usual biases that he tries to smuggle into the book as a way of indoctrinating young readers, while simultaneously being idealistic enough to help save some blacks by delivering them into Union lines and freedom, which is precisely what one would have expected from someone who was a serious Christian at the time when slavery was falling apart due to the strains of war.
This book is a short one aimed at middle grade readers that looks at the period between the Mine Run campaign and the first part of the Overland campaign from the point of view of a teenager who forged his uncle’s signature to join the army as a way of getting food and shelter and found himself being impressed into service as not only a soldier but also as a diarist. The author doesn’t make it clear why the kid is being singled out except for reasons of authorial convenience. The way that the protagonist writes the diary and manage to avoid writing about Gettysburg as well as anything after Spotsylvania. Perhaps this book, and others like it, suffer a great deal from the problem that there are such strict word count limits on middle grade reading materials and that forces the author to choose a convenient starting point and then to end the book in an epilogue that tries to tie up as many of the loose ends as possible. In this case we see the protagonist’s future as an interesting one involving art and travel and marriage, which would have made for a worthwhile sequel, at least.
Perhaps the best parts of this book are the artistic drawings that are included as well as the maps that break up the text. If the setup of the novel itself is a little bit problematic given its anti-Christian bias, the book itself is easy enough to enjoy if you don’t think too much about it and the author is certainly skilled at writing the perspective of a teen in war who grows up a bit during the course of the book’s events. So long as you don’t expect too much from an effort like this and you account for the author’s biases, there is a book here that can be enjoyed. I am not sure if I would appreciate the author’s history offerings if they have the same sort of biases of this novel, but the book is transparent enough not to be deceitful at least. Like many books, this one can only be judged as part of that context, and that context includes the author’s own motives and agendas (anti-religious and wanting to create a character that the reader can relate to) as well as the context of the war itself and the series in which this book is a part.