Review: The Guns of the South
by Harry Turtledove
An historical novel masquerading as science fiction, The Guns of the South examines the issues and personalities surrounding the American Civil War through the perspective of a Confederate States of America that successfully wins its bid for independence.
There is a definite strain of fantasy in the novel, as the south is able to turn back the overwhelming strength of the Northern states only through the assistance of white supremacists who have traveled back in time from the 21st century to ensure that American slavery survives. Despite this element, which (obviously) heavily influences the plot, the story is a close examination of the actual historical personalities, ranging from Abe Lincoln and the Confederate president Jefferson Davis, to soldiers pulled from historical records. The author delves deeply into the philosophies of the various historical figures, which he has extrapolated through extensive research into historical documents relating to the period. The story focuses primarily on two people: General Robert E. Lee and a soldier by the name of Nate Caudell. Through these two characters the reader is able to follow the story from the highest levels of the military, and later the government, to the situation of the common soldiers in the field and later in civilian life.
Turtledove spends time illustrating the actual motivations behind the Civil War, which went far beyond the modern simplification of emancipation of slaves. (In fact Lincoln historically did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation until after the war had begun, and he purportedly did it as a tactic to harm the South's bid for freedom.) In the novel, one of the main post-victory political issues of the fledgling Confederate States becomes whether or not to free the slaves anyway; and Turtledove clearly illustrates the causes of this seemingly strange twist.
I suppose the highest compliment I can pay this book is that it has sparked in me an interest in the history of the Civil War. There is a point in the book when Lee gets his hands on a book from the future, stolen from one of the time travelers. The title of the book is The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War; and having seen Turtledove's scrupulous verisimilitude throughout the text, it seems a safe bet that this is a real book. That dedication to realism is one of the book's best qualities. It is easy when reading this book to imagine life in the 1860s, as the author is careful and detailed in his descriptions of the vagaries of everyday life in the 19th century.
Another interesting point is the contrast between the characterizations of the time travelers versus the native citizens of the time period. There are distinctly different attitudes, as the historic figures attempt to live their lives in a somewhat more "gentlemanly" manner, and believe in such concepts as honor, while the men from the future are ruthless in a manner indicative of modern day zealotry. Lee is repeatedly shocked by their behavior throughout the book, as the travelers engage in tactics ranging from blackmail to assassination to further their goals.
This book is rife with intimately detailed characters, a believably authentic setting, and a plot that fascinates at the same time as it moves along at a good clip. These factors add up to a book to which I can give my highest endorsement.