I am taking some time to read some of the books for my 15-year-old daughter’s literature class, and just finished reading “Red Badge of Courage.” I have discussed some part with her already, but I wanted to write a short review about the book, just to pull from my brain the impression it made upon me—nothing fancy or not super in-depth. This is also in keeping with my goal for the blog.
My wife and daughter said she cried at parts, and so, having cried at Where the Red Fern Grows, I prepped myself. But I just did not get the emotional connection she did—I take that back. She connected to the slaughter, but I didn’t. It was too vague for me. I connected very intimately with the youth, but not the countless soldiers dying around him. I thought the writing was stiff and staccato, and was distracting. It was a curious mixture of Civil War slang and sophisticated language, and I thought some of the imagery was odd or forced.
One month out of high school I was in U.S. Army basic training, learning a whole new definition of fear, pain and torture. I remember going through those same thoughts about courage and cowardice. I tried to put myself into scenarios and ask honestly—would I function? Would I run? Would I fight? Would I actually kill someone? I remember sitting and realizing the foolishness of my childish fantasies of war. This was real—a real gun with real bullets and real bullets would be fired at me. Was I really a coward or not?
I have also trained in martial arts and have felt, at times during intense sparring, that almost hysterical, ragged animal rage and exhausted focus on survival. I am not saying it is anything like time in combat, just that I have felt it. I thought the book portrayed these characteristics well. I was especially moved when he fled in battle and his mind writhed with shame and self-justifications. Also, in his first conflict after returning to his regiment, he went into a blind fury, continuing to fire when the enemy had gone. He notes that other stare at him and concludes they are admiring him, when we suspect they don’t.
Overall, this book paints a portrait of a boy transitioning to veteran, embodying the flag and leading others in the charge. I believe instinctively that every soldier must go through this process of innocence, intensity, shame, insanity, and resolution. I thought there was more violence going on in his heart and mind than there was on the field of battle.
When the youth awoke it seemed to him that he had been asleep for a thousand years, and he felt sure that he opened his eyes upon an unexpected world. Gray mists were slowly shifting before the first efforts of the sun rays. An impending splendor could be seen in the eastern sky. An icy dew had chilled his face, and immediately upon arousing he curled farther down into his blanket. He stared for a while at the leaves overhead, moving in a heraldic wind of the day.
The distance was splintering and blaring with the noise of fighting. There was in the sound an expression of the deadly persistency, as if it had not begun and was not to cease.
About him were the rows and groups of men that he had dimly seen the previous night. They were getting a last draught of sleep before the awakening. The gaunt, careworn features and dusty figures were made plain by this quaint light at the dawning, but it dressed the skin of the men in corpselike hues and made the tangled limbs appear pulseless and dead. The youth started up with a little cry when his eyes first swept over this motionless mass of men, thick-spread upon the ground, pallid, and in strange postures. His disordered mind interpreted the hall of the forest as a charnel place. He believed for an instant that he was in the house of the dead, and he did not dare move lest these corpses start up, squalling and squawking. In a second, however, he achieved his proper mind. He swore a complicated oath at himself. He saw that this somber picture was not a fact of the present, but a mere prophecy. (emphasis mine)
From Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, Chapter 14