This is one of those books that I cannot honestly rate because I’ve read it two dozen times, and first read it in fourth grade. I loved it then, and I love it now, and it’s too close to my reading heart to rate it honestly. So anyway, five stars.
I was assigned this book in fourth grade, and it’s the first book that I opened, read two or three sentences and got super intimidated and put aside. A friend of mine told me he really liked it, so I powered forward, and ended up loving it. My personal copy is one I stole from my 9th grade English teacher. I think I might have borrowed it and forgot to give it back, but I can’t swear to that. As an English teacher now, and on her behalf, I forgive myself.
So the novel takes place first in Kansas in 1861, when Jeff(erson Davis) Bussey is working on his family farm when Missouri bushwhackers show up and hold his family at gunpoint. Every fights the pair off, and this incident impels Jeff to leave home to join the Union army. He grabs a couple of his friends along the way. We see him through training and marching, early skirmishes and his first battle. He has run-ins with corrupt officers, gets punished for standing up to bullying, and sees friends and colleagues killed. He also falls in love with a half-Cherokee girl named Lucy, who lives with her family in the Indian Territory of Talequah (now in Oklahoma), and who supports the Confederacy. He’s moved to the cavalry, and then the scouts, and finally the spies. He’s caught across enemy lines and gets conscripted into the very rebel fighting unit that has been terrorizing the countryside, Watie’s Raiders.
Here he learns not to love the Confederacy, but to understand it, and to love some of the people who fight for it and support it. When he’s presented with vital information regarding upcoming battles, he faces the choice to stay or go.
For the most part, this novel tries to be fair-minded. It doesn’t allow the Confederacy to promote the “lost cause” nonsense, but it does remind everyone of their humanity. It’s not a perfect portrayal, but it’s a solid work for kids, though the casual use of the n-word and a few other moments, means it requires some context-building.