Review of The Guns of the South by Harry Turtle Dove
By 1864 the prospects for Confederate victory in the American Civil War are becoming bleak. The Confederacy had been cut in two down the Mississippi River, and pierced in its vitals at Chattanooga. Northern resources are now being wielded successfully by effective commanders such as U. S. Grant and William T. Sherman at the head of massive Northern armies. In Northern Virginia the most successful Southern general, Robert E. Lee, faces an army twice his own while coping with insurmountable supply problems. While not without hope, he fears for the future as he searches for some way to turn the tide.
Deliverance arrives in the form of AndriesRhoodie, a tall man in odd dress with an unusual accent, who presents a rifle more marvelous than any Lee has ever seen. Rhoodie calls it an AK-47. Thus is set in motion a series of shattering events that alter the flow of history on the American continent.
And there’s your premise – time travelers, South African white supremacists from 2014 as it turns out – bring assault rifles to the armies of the Confederacy. The result is instant repulses with horrendous casualties for the United States and Lee’s capture of Washington. The Confederacy earns its freedom, but when political trends don’t go the way the men of the future want, they decide additional action is needed to preserve their racial paradise.
At first glance, the idea seems preposterous, even if we are talking about time travel. Rebels with AK-47s?In addition, Turtledove’s characters can sometimes be very one dimensional and the dialogue sometimes repetitive or just generally underwhelming. Both Publishers Weekly and The Library Journal panned The Guns of the South when it released in 1992, for both reasons above and several others.
And the critics got it very wrong.
While acknowledging that history buffs would likely enjoy the book, many critics did not fully understand what that means. The Guns of the South will never replace beautiful and stupendous works of fiction like Shaara’s The Killer Angels or Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. But it wasn’t meant to. For all the various failings it may have, this is the perfect alternative history story for any Civil War buff.
Through the lens of Robert E. Lee nearly every major Civil War personage is encountered, and those encounters feel extremely real. The dialogue may not be the most ingenious ever, but Turtledove stays true to his characters. The amount of research that went into this book is amazing. I first read The Guns of the South as a teenager, and enjoyed it greatly, but it wasn’t until I recently reread the story that I realized how authentic so much of the book is. Having read about or researched many of the characters, I found myself repeatedly nodding or smiling at various historically accurate quirks or mannerisms that crop up in the story.
The Guns of the South has one other character that you follow much of the time, a sergeant from North Carolina, who guides you through most of the battle scenes and gives the grunt’s eye view that Lee’s character simply cannot provide. Here the story is weakest, for the buff has less to hang their hat on and Turtledove’s failings become more apparent. I found myself anticipating the return of Lee’s perspective and rapidly reading through the other sections. Particularly interesting scenes include Lincoln and Lee upon the capture of Washington, and Lee’s reaction to finding a stolen copy of American Heritage History of the Civil War, a book published 130 years after his own time!
Perhaps most important, Turtledove has not created a time travel story whereby the myth of the Lost Cause and Southern arms are glorified and upheld as a potentially bright future. If anything, this is a book about slavery, race, and equality. It makes sense – after all, that’s what the Civil War was about. Turtledove correctly places the status of the black man as the subtext of the whole narrative. He may not discuss race relations on every page, but it’s the underpinning of the whole story. By doing this Turtledove sets a fantasy story in a completely grounded manner.
So it’s not great literature, and you may find the The Guns of the South only marginally interesting if you’re not moderately well versed in Civil War history. But if you are, then as current dean of Civil War historians and Pulitzer Prize winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom James McPherson has said, “this is a must read for all students of the Civil War.”
Code 451 Rating: 8 (Good Read)
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