Ballantine Books, 2013, $28.00, 565 pages.
Image courtesy of Barnes and Noble
In A Chain of Thunder, Jeff Shaara continues his series on the War in the West bringing us the campaign which opened the Mississippi and introduces us to some very interesting characters. Through his usual narrative, there comes some clarity which has left Civil War novices confused about the Vicksburg Campaign and the novel stands as a great introduction for those people interested in something besides the War in the East. The second part of his series is a welcome addition not only to the bookshelves of Civil War buffs, but the literary world as well.
Jeff Shaara is a New York Times bestseller and began his career with the work preceding his father’s called Gods and Generals and finished the story with The Last Full Measure. Shaara has won numerous accolades for his works on the revolution called Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause. After his series on the Civil War in the West, he will be pursuing the Texas conflict and the Korean War.
For the first time in his career, Jeff Shaara has given us the outlook of a woman. She does not have just one chapter, but many telling the story of the civilians who had to hide out in the caves and sometimes gave their services as nurses. The narrative of the hospitals is gruesome and not for the faint of heart, but even more so, the narrative of life in the caves is even worse. There are some points in literature which stick with you for the rest of your life and his description of life in the caves and the starvation of the men and women of the city of Vicksburg is one of those passages. Whether it be the slaughter of the horses so they could eat all the way down to killing dogs for food, the disturbing image comes when there is no reservation about eating these animals. Even the conditions of the high command of the Confederate army is deplorable. In this volume, Shaara chooses to use Pemberton as the voice of the Confederate command structure instead of Johnston and rightfully so. Pemberton was more the defender of Vicksburg than any other commander. He does, however, give Pemberton the same treatment his father gave Longstreet in The Killer Angels. He has taken a character which was not always in good light and given him a favorable view. In the end, you feel sorry for Pemberton and wonder what he could have done to further his fight. But knowing there was nothing for him to do was quite sad and some say could change the opinions of people about the man. On the Union side, we have the regulars from the last book, A Blaze of Glory, with Private Bauer from the 17th Wisconsin and General Sherman. Something, however, can be said about reading a book with the opposition has the upper hand constantly in the campaign. While there are small battles throughout the siege which the Union army loses, there is something in the back of the reader’s mind saying that they still have the upper hand in the situation which makes this book a bit more history than novel. Which brings me to the major point of my review. A Chain of Thunder is a good book, but is more nonfiction novel than an actual historical fiction book. I learned more about the Vicksburg Campaign in this book than I have learned from any of his other works and once again, Shaara shines when he only has to worry about a single campaign or battle instead of stretching the work over a few years.
I recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of historical fiction because while being such, it is quite different from what the standard is for those types of works. The detail in which is gives to the campaign of Vicksburg is quite good and while he makes the reader feel sympathy for the Confederate army, there is still an even divide between the Union and Confederate accounts. Jeff Shaara’s War in the West series is a very welcome addition to my own Civil War library and should be a welcome addition to any other history fan as well.