First, let me say that I get what is good about this book. It’s unique. There aren’t many decent children’s books out there that follow a young soldier around through the entire Civil War, and the ones that do exist are all set in the eastern part of the U.S. I didn’t know much about what was going on in the west during the Civil War before I read this book. Most of the scholarship or fiction I’ve been exposed to has all been focused on the other part of the country.
For it’s length, it’s a very readable, usually exciting novel. Part of me wishes it was shorter, but in all honesty, it would have been better served by being longer. It wraps up very abruptly and it feels very rushed. The villain of the novel, Clardy, is killed off-screen, and we are denied a big confrontation. The whole ending just seemed really anti-climatic, but maybe that’s the way war really is? You fight and march, and everything’s all build up and then suddenly it’s all over. I don’t know. It didn’t make for a great novel ending, though.
Now let’s play a quick game of Is It Racist? I think there is a definite difference between a racist character and a racist author/omniscient narrator. I’m OK with a racist character existing. There are racist people out there, and of course, they’re going to find their way into stories. I have more of a problem when the author or the omniscient narrator is blatantly racist. Let’s examine the scenes in Rifles for Watie that made me cringe, and see whether they are reflections of the author’s own racism or of they are simply racist characters in a time when the country was very racially charged.
The first scene that made me cringe was when Jeff first meets Lucy, his Confederate love interest. She is half-Cherokee, and according to our narrator, very beautiful. Jeff too, finds her beautiful “even though her skin had a brownish cast.” My first reaction to that statement was, “What does that even mean?” The answer of course is that Jeff’s ideal of a beauty up until that point was a fair-skinned very Caucasian girl. Lucy was so beautiful that it redefined Jeff’s definition of beauty. My first inclination is to say that this is simply character racism. After all, it’s Jeff’s prejudices that we’re dealing with here, but after thinking about it, I changed my mind. The narrator says it in such a matter-of-course way. It’s like “Of course dark-skinned ladies aren’t usually beautiful, but this girl was REALLY beautiful.” That nonchalance makes me think that it’s really Harold Keith’s prejudices that we’re dealing with.
Then there’s the dialect. The African-American slaves that the Union soldiers come across nearly always speak like they do on page 150. “Yassuh! Yassuh! Plenty of hams in theah, suh.” The Union soldiers don’t really talk with much dialect throughout the book, even though they’re all farmers from Kansas. I was ready to give Harold Keith another racist stamp for it, but then we meet the White Confederate soldiers, and they all speak with that dumb, exaggerated dialect, too. So, I really think that, to Harold Keith, Americans from the west spoke in a kind of normal dialect. A few contractions here and there, but usually complete, coherent sentences. The moment you cross the Mason-Dixon line and enter the South, everyone, white and black, speaks in a kind of jumbled up, nonsensical manner. In this case, Harold Keith wasn’t racist, only regionalist. If he looked down on anyone for the way he thought they talked, it was the South as a whole.
The last scene I want to look at is on page 155. There is a dying slave literally on his death bed. He is holding on to life, so that he can see a Union soldier coming to liberate his people before he dies. Jeff walks into the room, and the man takes a look at his blue uniform, and says, “I bress God.” and dies. (Bress. Really?) I call this a white messiah moment. I think that Harold Keith saw his ancestors that served in the civil war as liberators coming in to save the slaves, even though there were men of many races serving on the union side. The whole scene just seemed really condescending to me, and I think the novel would have been better without it.
In the end, yeah. I think Harold Keith was a little bit racist.It isn’t overwhelming, but I do think he had some prejudices that came out in his novel.
I liked Rifles for Watie, but I didn’t love it. The main issue for me was the anti-climatic feeling I got from the abrupt ending. The uncomfortable feeling I got from those few scenes spoiled it some, too.
I give it three out of five Newbery Pies