Saturday, July 12, 2008

Joseph Bruchac's MARCH TOWARD THE THUNDER


[Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2008 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.]


Bruchac, Joseph (Abenaki), March Toward the Thunder. Dial (2008), grades 5-up.

Between 1861 and 1865, during what has been labeled the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history, more than one million young men, foot soldiers who had enlisted or been drafted into the infantries of the Northern and Southern armies, were maimed or killed as they marched toward the thunder of each other’s artillery.

It’s the summer of 1864, and 15-year-old Louis Nolette, an Abenaki from Canada, is living in New York with his mother. Lured by the promise of good wages and a “fine, clean uniform,” and the North’s stated commitment to end slavery, Louis signs up with the 69th New York Volunteers: the “Fighting 69th,” the “Irish Brigade”—known for its courage and ferocity—marching from New York to Virginia.

An “eager boy going into battle,” what Louis finds out during this long summer is that war is not about heroes and villains: it’s about scared kids on both sides of the trenches, killing and dying for a “cause” that becomes further and further removed from their realities. “Aye,” Sergeant Flynn tells Louis, “war’s a dirty business and never ye forget that.”

A dirty business in more ways than one. Constant attacks by lice and fleas. The unavailability of water for bathing. And the slaughters on both sides that result from incompetent officers and generals whose political careers dictate their military judgments. “God save us from all generals,” Sergeant Flynn says.

March Toward the Thunder is not a blow-by-blow description of some of the major battles of the Civil War, though they are here: Cold Harbor, the Crater, the Bloody Angle, the Wilderness, Petersburg. It is not a roster of the famous names, though some make an appearance, too: Abe Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, and Seneca General Ely Parker. Rather, it is about the exhausted, homesick young people who do the fighting and whom readers will get to know and like—before almost all of them are killed.

Here are “Bad Luck” Bill O’Day and Kevin “Shaky” Wilson, the first to die:

O’Day’s head had been broken open like a melon by a spinning piece of shell. Nor was it likely that Shaky Wilson was still breathing. The last [Louis had] seen Wilson, he was leaning on a fallen tree and trying to hold in a red writhing mass spilling like snakes out of his belly.

Of the others who become friends—amidst “the confusion of gunshot and smoke, shots and screams and the sounds of men calling for water or their mothers”—few are left alive. And many of those others who might survive find parts of themselves left at the hospital tent, with the doctors’ sawbones-approach to medicine:

A grisly pile of arms and legs of men [who] would never shoulder a musket or march again to battle lay stacked four feet high behind the operating area. If and when there was a lull in the action, those lost limbs would be buried in the same earth where men were digging trenches.

In some places, compassion emerges from the bloody chaos. There are informal truces between Blue and Gray young men, who share the little they have. There’s a hushed, nighttime break together, where Louis is wished luck by a young Cherokee Reb whose cousin Louis has pulled to safety (“I do hope you don’t get kilt tomorrow,” he says). There’s the deep friendship that develops between Louis and a young Mohawk named Artis, who, in another war in another time and place, might have become deadly enemies. And there’s this: As Louis’ companions settle into their trenches for the night, they hear a familiar song floating from the enemy camp, “as sweet a version of ‘Amazing Grace’ as he’d ever heard… Then, up and down the line of trenches, Union men began to join in until at least a thousand voices and hearts of men in both blue and gray were lifted above the earthly battlefield by a song.”

Louis Nolette is based on Bruchac’s great-grandfather Louis Bowman, who served in the Irish Brigade in 1864-1865. He was gravely wounded and left for dead, surviving because Thunder came and he was able to drink from the rain pools. Here, Louis, his mother, his comrades,—and his “enemies”—are real people. Through them, middle readers will find no “good guys” or “bad guys,” no simplistic declaration of “mission accomplished.” Rather, with the assistance of a skilled teacher, they will be able to relate to the historical and contemporary issues of military recruitment and war.

Bruchac, who has recently become a grandfather, dedicates this book to “our grandchildren; may they live to see a world in which there is no war.” Through the eyes of a 15-year-old Indian boy become a man, he has crafted a profound statement against warfare. March Toward the Thunder should be required reading for every fifth- and six-grader in this country, for every youngster who is addicted to violent video games, and for every 18-year-old who is contemplating serving in this country’s armed forces.

—Beverly Slapin

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Note from Debbie: March Toward the Thunder is available from Oyate, a Native non-profit organization. You can always get a book cheaper at places like Amazon, but supporting Oyate means support of the work Oyate does for children. If you have a choice, order March Toward the Thunder from Oyate.

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Update, July 13, 6:45 AM---Here's Joseph Bruchac, singing a song he wrote, "Dare to Hope."


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