Rifles for Watie
Rifles for Watie
Harold Keith (1958)
Read to: 6th - 7th grade
Read independently: 8th - 12th grade
Whenever I read historical fiction I'm often left wondering what parts are history and what parts fiction. Such is the case on page 95 with the tale off how the U.S. took homes away from Indians. I've heard of the occurrence but not the details. This account seems plausible so I'm inclined to believe it. Doesn't much matter for me but hopefully its accurate should it ever come up on a history test for my child. Well, of course I don't hope it's accurate because I'd rather think nothing so tragic happened at all, but if it did, I'm unlikely to be a contestant on Jeopardy! but my son, even though he's only 7y8m now, has a memory like a steel trap and is likely to remember these kinds of trivia when he studies the period at some point in his school career.
The book opens in the middle of 1861 near the Kansas - Missouri border where the war over slavery is on everyone's mind. Crime and violence is commonplace with good people often falling victim to the marauders. The main character, Jeff Bussey, and his family, are no exception. After a home invasion by a band of "bushwackers" Jeff is certain he must enlist with the Union army. His father, Emory, reluctantly agrees. "Quietly Jeff's mother began to sob. ... It was hard to give up one's first-born. Jeff had come into the world back in Kentucky when she was a girl-wife of seventeen. With him to care for, life on the new Kansas farm hadn't been so lonely when Emory was gone all day working in the field. With all the tenderness a mother could muster, she had fed, bathed, and cared for Jeff, loving his bright, cheerful ways, nursing him through his boyhood diseases, teaching him the Biblical precepts of decency and kindness. And now he was to be wrenched from her." (p. 15)
As he walks off to war the next day he picks up to other young boys (John Chadwick and David Gardner) along the way, as if he were the Pied Piper. There is a lot of war talk and violence in the book. Some of it written in a variety of dialects. Here's a mild example, " 'I jined up fer a frolic,' laughed a tall fellow from Republic County with warts on his face. He turned to his messmate, a blond boy from Fort Scott. 'Why did you come in?' // 'Wal, by Jak, because i thought the rebels was gonna take over the whole country.' // 'I joined up because they told me the rebels was cuttin' out Union folks' tongues and killin' their babies. After I got here I found out all it was over was wantin' to free the niggers,' complained another, disgustedly." (p. 22) With all the geography talk there ought to be a map. And maybe it's a Kansas thing but Jeff says "corn" like Texan says "gosh" or "gee". Jeff reminds me of Gomer Pyle.
Jeff is so amped up to join the war he's worried it'll be over before he gets there and is glad when the enlistment office asks for a secondary address to send his pay in case he gets captured. "Pondering the question, Jeff felt better. He had been afraid the rebels would surrender and the war end before he could get into the fighting. And here was this fellow, suggesting he might be captured. Maybe he was going to see some action after all." It's almost one-third of the way through the book before Jeff sees any action. For quite a while all he sees is punishment and circumstances. Nice as Jeff is, he has a little streak in him that rubs officer Clardy the wrong way, causing lots of extra duty and punishment detail. But when the real action comes up, he winds up missing it under command to take a message to the back of the line. A cook notices Clardy's dislike for Jeff and gives Jeff some dirt on Clardy hoping it'll back him into a corner but Clardy's not a man to run from a fight. A few chapters later it seems Clardy is responsible for the cooks death. Jeff is rather remorseful with the idea that he might have been a contributing factor.
But at least Jeff is a positive influence on David. David decides he's not so eager after all to see the action and winds up deserting. Jeff gets a furlough and goes home for a visit. On his way back he brings David along, encouraging him to do the right thing and turn himself in which results in reassignment to a different unit for punishment detail. even the men who aren't being punished still don't have an easy time of it. Food is always short and hunger is a huge issues such that the men take to thieving. Occasionally they get caught but usually it seems the officers look the other way. There was one time when the troops were marching an a man with a wagon full of apples came upon them. The man started to sell the apples. "The whole transaction moved so slowly that Bill Earle climbed jocularly into the front-end of the wagon, cut a sack string, and began helping the boys right and left. The farmer hurriedly pushed Bill out. // But while he was retying that sack, Noah and John Chadwick lifted out the open sack in the rear and began handing out apples to everybody. ... // As Jeff bit juicily into his and found it delicious, he could hear the farmer still shouting helplessly, 'Captain! Captain!' But no captain came, and finally the old man drove off with an empty wagon." (p. 97) It is unclear whether Jeff actually paid for his apply as was his original intention - but certainly this incident demonstrates bad behavior on the part of several soldiers. Sadly, based on news reports and some court-martialings in recent years, I suspect not much has changed.
Another time they quench tier hunger by killing a cow. Certainly the act is more respectable but the author paints a rather gruesome account. "Herding it to the edge of the woods, they shot it. As it lay kicking, its eyes glazed in death, John thrust his knife into its throat and a column of blood gushed over the hot grass." (p. 104 - 105) The animal is then skinned and dissected. While the description is realistic it may be Too Much Information for weaker-stomached readers. The gore is not reserved for animals being put to practical use. There are several instances in this story where human wounds are described just as vividly or more so. Nobody is saved from the gory details, not even the beloved Millholland who had stood up for a soldiers right to pray and whom Jeff respected greatly. His fatal injuries are reported in such detailed nonchalance as any other body or beast. The violence and gore continues all the way to the end, along with some soldierly language ("Hell, no!" - p. 287 and similar instances).
It's also hard to maintain your personal convictions in a time of war. As they were marching to battle Jeff saw someone toss a deck of playing cards into the bushes. " 'He probably doesn't want to be killed in battle with playing cards on him,' Noah said, gravely. 'It's a superstition lots of soldiers have. They've been told in church that it's wrong to play cards. They're afraid if they get killed with playing cards on them, they won't go to Heaven.' " (p. 54) Another boy shoots himself in the hand, claiming it was an accidental discharge. Clardy thinks his goal is to avoid battle. As he walks him to the ambulance, he threatens to have him court-martialed for cowardice and yells a bunch of insulting names at him. Captain Millholland does stand up for his own beliefs and those of others when he stops a soldier from taunting someone who was praying before battle.
Jeff does too. One day he is out roaming and knocks on a door to ask if he can have some apples off the tree. The lady of the house is reluctant, fearing she'll have the whole army at her door the next day, but Jeff assures her she won't. She winds up inviting him in and gives him bread and butter along with the apples. Some days later Jeff volunteers for an assignment not knowing what he's getting in to. Turns out they go around the area gathering food and livestock from homes who's men are away fighting for the rebels. The last house they go to is of the lady who gave Jeff the apples. Jeff is very reluctant but must follow orders. The woman does not hid her sense of betrayal. Several hours later though, Jeff sneaks the confiscated cow out of camp and returns it to the family.
While I can't vouch much for the accuracy of the historical anecdotes, I can say with almost certainty that Mr. Keith has never cooked rice on his own. He relates that the rice "began to boil over and spill down the sides of the kettle. With a big spoon, Jeff tried to salvage the bubbling white overflow. But it was rising and swelling faster than he could ladle it out." (p. 110) So he scooped the rice onto a blanket from which they ate it directly. Any weekend cook knows that if rice boils over it is still very much in the raw stage - when it is cooked it has absorbed all the water so there's nothing left to boil over.
Jeff's thoughts boil over when he finally does see battle. "He began to recall all the mean things he had ever done and how he might never have time to atone for them. Life was running out on him. He wasn't ready to die. He didn't want to be rushed into it. He needed more time to think about it. After all, a person died just once. Anybody who let himself get killed was just plain stupid. The world was a wonderful place to live. No matter how revered he was in life, a dead person was so completely out of things. Even his own relatives soon forgot him and quickly reshaped their lives without him." (p. 132) With overwhelming thoughts like that I expected Jeff to bolt after the battle but he stuck around. Perhaps it was the decoration that emboldened Jeff to stay. Much to his surprise he received a Medal of Honor. When he asks Noah how the general even knew their names, "Noah had the answer. 'Remember the tall artillery lieutenant that axes us our names soon as the battle ended?' " (p. 143) Yes, that's right folks, Noah said "axed" instead of asked. Draw your own assumptions. Other than the Indians, there's really not much racial or cultural disparity in this book - a soldier is a soldier, as it should be. For much of the book, Jeff heard about a leader named "Watie" in the opposition. When Jeff finally saw the man, he was surprised that the man's stature did not live up to his expectations. It was like if you've ever met a celebrity in person and been surprised about how short they were. I thought it was amusing.
There is a running theme of the opposing sides and Jeff's recognition that they are all human. On page 236 he is scouting in enemy territory and is surprised at how many of the southern names are derived from Indian names and on page 239 when he has a conversation with a passing "Negro boy" and is surprised to hear he can't fight in the war because he's considered valuable property. Especially after Jeff has a nighttime rendezvous with the enemy to trade tobacco for coffee and also after he falls in love with a girl on the Indian Nation who's brother is away fighting for the other side. The girl does not seem to be Indian and is well versed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as evidenced when she and Jeff debate the documents. Most of those passages would probably go over the heads of the majority of readers. Even as I was reading myself, I mean my son, to sleep it was difficult for me to follow (especially between nods of my head). It's just as well though, as I feel there are just too many gruesome details in this book such that it should be reserved for mature readers. Around the 180s I found myself skipping words so that my son might not realize that a soldier home for a visit was shot dead at point blank range by the enemy as his family watched in their front yard. Not really the pleasant thoughts I want him to drift off to sleep with. I realize these award-winners were not written intentionally for bedtime reading - but regardless of time of day, it is human nature to dwell on things we've read or heard and I'd much rather my youngster dwell on happy-go-lucky dog-napping mysteries like Ginger Pye. I even considered abandoning the story - which would be a welcome relief to my aging eyes that are getting much practice with my new progressive lenses against the tiny print of this book. But I know that my child is unusually thick-skinned and I also think, especially for him, there is value in the lesson of finishing what you start. Even as I sit here in his room during our daily quiet-reading hour I count eight books he has started but not finished: a graphic Pokemon novel we got at the library two days ago, four Geronimo Stilton books from a library trip one month ago, two Dinosaur Cove books from our most recent trip - all seven of his choosing, and one Hank the Cow Dog which I selected for him one month ago and he asks me to read to him if he's tired during our quiet hour.
Okay, I have let my pen run away with my thoughts - back to the book. Sometimes the author's pen seems a bit out of control too. many times a word or phrase is repeated very near itself which just seems awkward. Such as on page 186: "Although it was an hour before midnight, and everything was black as pitch, it seemed to him the night was very much alive. // he knew the rebel were very much alive on the south bank of the Arkansas river that divided the two armies." It's not a reason not to read the book (there are plenty of other reasons for that) but, personally I would've edited it differently. Likewise on page 206 when it is mentioned that a soldier "rode naked from the waist down". It just doesn't make enough contribution to the book to merit inclusion. If I want my kid to contemplate naked humans we'll go to an art museum, not the library.
On a lighter note, Jeff's love for Lucy is a consistent theme throughout the story no matter the situation. It is a type of love story that modern teens may not understand because they fall in love through conversing. even though he's in love with her, he doesn't even try to hold her hand. It is a big surprise when she kisses him and confesses that she likes him. That is extremely forward behavior for a girl of this time. It is the same type of courting that is seen in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Initially I wasn't sure Lucy felt anything for Jeff and perhaps she didn't until her brother was killed. Jeff had been assigned to the firing squad to shoot a captured enemy soldier. At the time he directly refused the order he did not know the captive was Lucy's brother. But after the execution, when Jeff discovered who it was, he made arrangements to get the body back home to the Washbourne family. He could not accompany the body personally since he was being punished for disobeying orders - but word of his actions reached Lucy via the conveyors of her brother's remains. That is most likely what tipped the scales of Lucy's affection in Jeff's favor - even though they supported opposing causes in the war.
Towards the last hundred pages or so I started to feel like this book was never going to wind down. There was one story line that flared up and as much as I was curious to find out the result, I really didn't need to know what every bough of every tree looked like on the way to resolving the plot. There is a minor reward in the family reunions in the last chapter of the book. But we just have an idea of happily ever after with Lucy - we don't actually see that come to fruition. All in all, I really couldn't recommend this book to anyone. Unless you are just a total and complete war story enthusiast and have exhausted every other war book in existence I don't see the point in reading this book. The moral lessons conveyed through this tale could be gotten much more directly and quickly in many other places.