The year I turned 10 was a turning point for me. I was in 5th grade and in my classroom, the teacher kept a really strict library. It was an ample library, and the teacher was excessively meticulous with her books. In the beginning of the year, the entire class had to fill out a sheet in which we had to constantly log our “Borrowed Books Activity.” Every book we read, required a report when that book was returned. I fully intended to log just three books, because that was the bare minimum expectation. However, something happened to me in that library. Somewhere between Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Rifles for Watie, I became mesmerized by the tomes that were placed in that library. It was there — in that space — that Ms. Tomasso birthed in me an avid obsession to read and analyze the books I read. It was there in that classroom that I found my Reading Sanctum. Even though I only expected to read 3 books, it was the first time I read 100 books in a year (a school year = 10 months).
Maybe it was the way that Jeff gets enlisted. Bushwhackers invade his home, and when he sees the potential danger, he protects his family, despite being 15 years-old. After killing one of the Bushwhackers (or maiming him, I’m not certain exactly which), fearing reprisals against his family, he runs off to join the Union army. As a ten-year-old, reading this, I remember how painful I thought it would be to leave my family and have to go fight alongside strangers. Sure, the cause was just, but I was equally afraid that I might never see my family again.
Although, Jefferson Davis Bussey, our main character, doesn’t go alone, it seems like he does. While on his way, he passes some of his friends who elect to go with him and that doesn’t work out all that great. However, he meets Noah Babbitt, an itinerant printer and nature lover, who becomes like a surrogate big brother to Jeff. I remember that during the first battle, Jeff gets asked to stay behind to help in a support position while his platoon fights on the front lines. He’s a little resentful, knowing that he’s excluded from the gory aspects of battle because of his youth. That happens a couple of times, until there’s a surprise attack and he sees Noah Babbitt go to his knee to shoot from cover. Jeff feels the bullets ricochet around him like deadly flies and he decides to shoot from his stomach. He’s no longer all that excited to be in a battle, especially as he witnesses some of his fellow soldiers dying around him in bloody fashion. The action sequences in this novel are stunningly believable. Harold Keith interviewed many soldiers in preparation to capture the realities of war with his words.
Who could forget the amazingly proud and stunningly beautiful Cherokee girl named Lucy Washbourne. She seems excessively scornful of the Union soldiers as a whole and of Jeff Bussey in particular. However, when a Confederate soldier is captured and placed before a firing squad, Jeff refuses to participate. The soldier is killed and Jeff is jailed for disobeying a direct order. When Jeff finds out that the Confederate soldier is Lee Washbourne (Lucy’s brother), he sends the information to the Washbourne family so that they can claim the body and bury the body in a dignified manner. Having behaved in such a conscientious and empathetic way alters their perceptions about this young man.
Somewhere along the line, Jeff becomes a spy for the Union and switches sides. When Lucy sees him in a Confederate uniform, her heart shifts. However, he is not really a Confederate, and once he finds out that his former Captain is selling repeating rifles to General Stand Watie, he must betray the Confederate friends that he has made, and return to his platoon.
I loved this book way back then. For the longest time, it was my favorite book and remains the same to this day. Even though I have read many books that I love, in the interim, this will always be my favorite book, because it was the one that first initiated me into that place where we go when we read. It incited that passion and still takes me to that place I call my Reading Sanctum.
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