Thursday, January 1, 2009

Two Girls of Gettysburg

by Lisa Klein
Bloomsbury Publishing
Reviewed by Melissa

The basic plot is simple: Lizzie and Rosanna are teenage cousins and best friends. They both live in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania when the Civil War breaks out in 1860. However, Rosanna is in exile from her family in Virginia (her parents sent her to live with her sister in Gettysburg to get her away from a boy back home), and soon after the war starts, she feels the pull to return and join the Southern Cause. This causes a rift between her and Lizzie that only time, war, and the Battle at Gettysburg can heal.

I really wanted to like this book. I've liked Lisa Klein's work in the past, and generally like historical fiction. I thought that the Civil War, particularly the Battle of Gettysburg, told from the point of view of two cousins on opposite sides could be interesting. But unfortunately, this book was a mess.

Initially, my dislike was because of what I felt were stock characters -- the noble free black man that suffers; the honorable hard-working Northern girl; the flighty Southern belle who has to learn a hard lesson -- I've read about all these people before. I was slightly interested in Lizzie and her plight holding down the fort while her brother and father were gone, but it still felt trite, even though it was not meant to. Rosanna I actively disliked, and I ended up skimming the chapters written from her point of view. She matures throughout the course of the book, but admittedly by the time she becomes somewhat likable, I didn't care why she was feeling noble and cared about the Southern cause. In addition, Klein is juggling an enormous cast: not just Lizzie and Rosanna, but Rosanna's two beaus, Lizzie's entire family, the hired black man and his wife; various soldiers and historical characters, Rosanna's sister and children... the list goes on and on.

I realized about halfway through the book that it's not just the characters that were contributing to the mess: the pacing was awkward. The first half takes place over three years. Because of all the jumping between time (months pass in between chapters at times; at other times, two different chapters take place over the same time period) and place (between Gettysburg, Richmond, and the battlegrounds of the South), I never really got a sense of who Lizzie or Rosanna really were. So, during the second half, when time slowed way down -- it takes place over the three days of fighting at Gettysburg -- when I was supposed to feel the emotional impact that battle had on not only the soldiers, but also on their families and the town of Gettysburg, I found that I just didn't care. I knew, intellectually, that I should, but I found myself skimming chapters, just reading the bits that I was actually interested in (specifically Lizzie's interest in a local boy, Martin).

The one thing that this book does have going for it is that it feels historically accurate. Admittedly, I'm not up enough on Civil War history to definitively say that it is historically accurate, but Klein doesn't spare us any unpleasantness: this is not a prettified Civil War. There's death -- lots of it -- not only by gun, but by dysentery, blood poisoning, typhoid fever... She depicts the starving people in Richmond, the prisons for prisoners of war, the looting and wrecking that soldiers did as they went through the countryside. It's not a pleasant place or time.

Even with that, though, there's just not enough for me to recommend it.

1 comment:

Kendall said...

Your an idiot, this was a really good book... It showed how two completely different characters can be best friends and how people can change over time... It was truly interesting and a great page-turner...