“As he set the hatbox on a crate beside him, Charley Quinn heard the words in his head: “If you ever got to fight alone, Charley, me lad, get your back to the wall.”
This is a reread from a long time ago for me, and it’s of a type to be sure. It’s a historical middle-grade novel published in 1987 about a boy from New York City who is in the gang “The Bowery Boys,” a real gang who’s primary rival in the city was “The Dead Rabbits”. The second gang is the Irish gang in “Gangs of New York” but both were real. It’s 1864 and Charley’s older brother died last summer at the battle of Gettysburg, and the news was brought to the family alongside Johnny’s silver watch by a fellow New Yorker and regiment-mate. This man returns to New York one day and Charley sees him and the man tells him that he’s rejoining to get the bounty pay, and Charley convinces him to take him along. Later we learn the guy was drunk when he agreed, because at 12, there’s no specific use for someone like Charley. In camp, officers place Charley with the drum corps and he begins learning the drumming commands necessary for battle. The army also has fellow gang members and rivals, and as he learns to drum he picks up brotherly figures among the camp. Their first real battle comes with the battle of the Wilderness. In the fracas, Charley picks up a dead soldier’s rifle and fires into the enemy line hitting a Confederate soldier. Horrified at the thought that he might have killed him, Charley runs away in view of his entire regiment who label him Charley Skedaddle. Now on the run, he runs afoul of the Rebel army who send him away and knowing he can’t go back to his army he heads west ending up in the mountains of Virginia, where he becomes friends with an older woman living by herself. Here he settles down for a while and learns about life outside of the city and also looks to regain his lost courage.
In some ways this book is really exciting, and in others it’s a mess. There’s a lot of nowhere threads that are designed to plug in some historical “facts” (included debunked misconceptions), but at least it’s not a lost cause nonsense book like I was used to reading as a kid.