Monday, July 19, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: The Horrors of Andersonville by Catherine Gourley

Found via: A Patchwork of Books

The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death Inside a Civil War Prison (Exceptional Social Studies Titles for Upper Grades)I love Nonfiction Mondays. I'm a big fiction reader, but a lot of that is just because it can be so dang hard to find a nonfiction book at the YA level. This is something that Nonfiction Mondays have actually highlighted for me - there are lots of great books being posted, but the majority of them are for younger readers. So I was very excited to see on the July 5th edition Amanda's post about The Horrors of Andersonville, highlighting not just a book appropriate for middle school and older readers, but also a civil war history, looking at the infamous Andersonville prison.

My own Civil War knowledge is rather lacking, though I've been reading everything I can since I read They Fought Like Demons and I'll Pass for your Comrade last October. The Horrors of Andersonville does an excellent job of informing relative newbies like me, while also providing an in-depth look at prison life, and the aftermath for many key players, including the commander of the interior of the prison, Henry Wirz, the only person tried and convicted of war crimes during the Civil War.

In a prison with over 30,000 prisoners, the story of the Andersonville prison could easily be a sprawling mess, but Gourley keeps the narrative steady by picking a few prisoners to follow as well as Wirz. To aide in clarity, Gourley gives us a cast of characters twice - a brief list at the beginning, and a short biography at the end covering both their actions during the war and what is known of their post-war lives.

The book is divided into two parts, first covering life in the filthy, squalid prison, and the second half focusing on the court martial Wirz faced, which was perhaps the most fascinating part. It's clear from Gourley's presentation that Wirz never had a chance at a fair trial, that the court was out for vengeance even though in all likelihood Wirz had very little control over conditions at Andersonville. She doesn't paint Wirz as a good guy - he clearly had anger issues and absolutely no love for the North - but he wasn't quite the monster the press and prosecution painted him as, and there were certainly others far more deserving of a trial (such as the president of the Confederacy, whose case was dismissed by the Supreme Court).

The descriptions of life in Andersonville were enough to make me gasp and gag. Why anyone thought Anderson Station would be a good place to house prisoners is beyond me, considering the very ground was infested with fleas before a single prisoner showed up. Eugh. Then there's the descriptions of scurvy many men suffered from, and the lack of treatment for wounds which often led to gangrene. Yuk, yuck, yuck.

Gourley presents lots of quotations from period sources, including letters and newspapers, and keeps the book accessible to all by defining unfamiliar words in brackets as they occur. No flipping back and forth to a glossary every time an unfamiliar word shows up. I also appreciated that sidebars and full pages that would describe situations outside of Andersonville appeared at natural stopping places in the text. It annoys the heck out of me when such an interruption in the main narrative occurs when a sentence is split between two pages, forcing me to turn the page, finish the sentence, and then turn back for the supplementary material. Here, such insets occur after a sentence has ended. Finish the sentence, turn the page to read about what was going on in prisoner of war camps in the North, then smoothly keep reading about Andersonville.

I also love Gourley's use of 21st century technology in the bibliography. When period books and letters are available online, through Google Books or other sources, she makes note of the link. This means I can download a PDF of John Ransom's Andersonville Diary or look at scans of the Harper's Weekly newspaper immediately after finishing the book, and know that I'm using the same sources the author did. I love living in the future!

This is absolutely a must for Civil War buffs, and anyone who is interested in asking questions about history and whether the dominant narrative is anything close to presenting "the truth."

Nonfiction Monday
This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by In Need of Chocolate (which happens to sum up my attitude this morning). Make sure to check out the roundup of other nonfiction titles highlighted today!
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