Today I am thrilled to be finally publishing my review of Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith. I read this book as a buddy read with my good friend, Jackie over at Death by Tsundoku. Suddenly, that was several months ago. Life has kept us both busy for different reasons this winter so we are glad we finally found time to write our thoughts on this surprising Civil War set Newbery winner.
First a summary of this novel courtesy of Goodreads, “Jeff Bussey walked briskly up the rutted wagon road toward Fort Leavenworth on his way to join the Union volunteers. It was 1861 in Linn County, Kansas, and Jeff was elated at the prospect of fighting for the North at last. . . .
He was probably the only soldier in the West to see the Civil War from both sides and live to tell about it. Amid the roar of cannon and the swish of flying grape, Jeff learned what it meant to fight in battle. He learned how it felt never to have enough to eat, to forage for his food or starve. He saw the green fields of Kansas and Okla-homa laid waste by Watie’s raiding parties, homes gutted, precious corn deliberately uprooted. He marched endlessly across parched, hot land, through mud and slashing rain, always hungry, always dirty and dog-tired. . . .
This is a rich and sweeping novel-rich in its panorama of history; in its details so clear that the reader never doubts for a moment that he is there; in its dozens of different people, each one fully realized and wholly recognizable. It is a story of a lesser — known part of the Civil War, the Western campaign, a part different in its issues and its problems, and fought with a different savagery. Inexorably it moves to a dramatic climax, evoking a brilliant picture of a war and the men of both sides who fought in it.”
As per our tradition, Jackie and I exchanged 5 questions each about the novel. We both answer all 10 questions in our own posts. Check out Jackie’s post to see how she answered these questions. Enjoy!
- Did you know anything about the western front of the US Civil War before picking up this book? If so, how did this book change your perspective of that time? If not, how do you feel about never having learned about this?
No, my knowledge of the Civil War was mostly limited to the classic battles (Gettysburg etc) and the fight about slavery. This book changes that understanding immensely! There was so much more to this war than slavery. I was surprised how different the reasons for going to war were in this novel. It makes me wish I have a more well rounded education of the Civil War and it’s intricacies and the diversity of the battles and people who fought in it.
- Jefferson Davis Bussey meets many people during his time in the war. Which characters stood out to you? Why?
Lucy is the first character that comes to mind. Obviously, Jeff falls in love with her almost immediately. But I was more struck by how strongly she believed in the Confederate side of the war. I haven’t read many accounts from that side of the conflict and I found her opinions fascinating (and pretty logical too!). The other character that comes to mind is Captain Clardy. His character surprised me with his intense hatred and complex secrets. I was also surprised by how he plays into the climax of the story. In my mind (and based on my public school understanding of the Civil War), the Union was the good guys and the Confederates were the bad guys. But it was so much more complex than that. Individuals made choices that were good or bad. Captain Clardy is an example of that.
- Rifles for Watie features many Native American, half-Native American, and African American characters. How do you feel Keith handled portraying these characters? Would this portrayal pass muster in 2020?
Again, it’s been several months since I read this novel, but I remember being fascinated by how he portrayed Native Americans. They weren’t savages or uneducated. On the contrary, they owned land and wanted the freedom to live with their families. They aren’t any different than Jeff and his family back home. They want to protect their homes and their families. Lucy offers us a great comparison character to Jeff because they are fighting on different sides but for rather similar reasons. I feel like the portrayals could work in 2020. But at the same time, it’s hard to tackle these sorts of issues in the age of political correctness so I would applaud anyone who made this sort of effort.
- Compare and contrast Jeff’s time with the Union to his time with Watie’s men. How are these moments the same? How are they different? Why does it matter?
I was surprised by the contrast between life in the Union camps versus the Confederate camps. I would have thought that the Union life would have more luxuries and camaraderie between soldiers. But I found myself wanting to sit around Heifer’s campfire and enjoy his homemade biscuits. I felt like Watie’s men were actually friends, not just soldiers fighting on the same side. Also, I found it fascinating to see how well Jeff is treated when he is sick behind enemy lines and the relationships he builds there. That family takes him into their home and even brings him with them to Texas when they have to abandon that home. They take care of him for months and treat him with kindness and respect. I think all this matters because it shows that human decency and kindness can be found everywhere. It doesn’t matter who is fighting on the “right” side of this war, they are all people. And some people treat others with respect while others treat people rudely and with contempt.
- Why do you believe this book was chosen for a Newbery Award? Where does this stand in your ranking of the Newbery winners you’ve read thus far?
This is a unique Newbery winner for me so far. It is set in a time period that others are not set in. It offers a lot more historical details than many I’ve read. And it tackles hard questions that not all authors would be brave enough to discuss. It’s hard to rank the Newbery winners as I’ve enjoyed most of the ones I’ve read. But I would say this is a top 10 read for me thus far. I think the writing is engaging, the story is interesting, and the characters are well developed and complex. Well done, Harold Keith!
- Jeff’s views on war change as he experiences war. What surprised you about his opinions or which of his opinions were the most interesting to you?
I really haven’t read much about this time period and was fascinated by Jeff’s initial excitement for battle. He is so excited to fight and seems unaware of the horrors of war. I think what was most interesting for me is Jeff’s changing perceptions on war. Yes, he begins with this naive excitement for battle. Then he experiences disappointment as he misses the first action in battle. But then his experience becomes more varied–loss, hunger, fatigue, false accusations, spying, illness, and more. I think this change made the whole novel feel more authentic. All of us have false expectations about things in life that we haven’t experienced yet. I appreciated the way Jeff came to see the complexities of war and that sometimes your enemy is not who you thought it was.
- Friendship is at the heart of this story. Which of Jeff’s friendships seemed most important to you?
I think of three people whose friendship defines Jeff’s experiences in the war. First, Noah Babbitt who seems to be his most loyal friend in the Union army. I think he helps Jeff see that the world is smaller than you think and that you can walk anywhere you need to 😉 Next is Heifer, the cook in Watie’s camp. Heifer is a great cook but also a genuinely kind human being. He cares about Jeff from the moment they meet and he helps Jeff understand that the soldiers on both sides of the conflict are human. And of course, Lucy Washbourne changes everything Jeff thought he knew about people fighting against the Union. He is captivated by her beauty but also by her spirit and passion. His friendship and then blossoming feelings for her comes to define his whole experience in the war.
- Were you surprised by how young Jeff (16 years old at the start of the novel) or other soldiers are? How does their youth change the way you view the battles, death, and war overall in this novel?
I was surprised by the youth of many of the characters. And I was surprised how supportive Jeff’s parents are of his enlisting so young. Seeing him and his young friends go enlist was humbling and a bit sad. They gave up their youth and innocence to defend their families. Also young Jimmy Lear who I believe was a drummer boy in the Union made an impression on me. I quickly saw the darker side of the fighting and the cruel way that death does not account for youth.
- What do you think happens after the novel is over? Does Jeff go back for Lucy? Is he happy in Kansas?
I am an idealist so I have to believe Jeff went back for Lucy and she still loved him. I think they will get married and be quite happy together. However, I am not sure Jeff will be content to live in Kansas for the rest of his days. I think that he and Lucy will find it difficult to live there and that they will experience a lot of prejudice. Honestly, it seemed Jeff was most happy at the Washbourne’s home or in his convalescence in Texas. So I think he would end up further South and find a happy life there.
- Why do you think this novel is titled Rifles for Watie?
I think this title is intriguing because it doesn’t give away the whole story. Yes, there are the physical rifles that are being sold to Watie’s men and that would change the course of the war. But that is more of a subplot than a main story line. I think rifles could also just mean men or people willing to fight for Watie. Jeff’s story shows the difficulty of establishing a clear “good guy” versus “bad guy” in this fight. At a few parts, I thought Jeff might just join Watie and fight the Union with a (mostly) clear conscience. At the least, I think this title gives us a new focus and understanding in the complexities of the Civil War and the people that fought in it.
Overall, a fascinating novel. Well deserved Newbery with compelling themes and complex characters. Thanks again to Jackie for the fun buddy read! Let’s do another one soon 🙂
What novels set in the Civil War did you enjoy most?
Why do you think books set in this time period are less common?
I read this Newbery Medal winner as a part of my Newbery Challenge.
I plan to read all 100 Newbery Medal winners by the end of 2022, the year the 100th winner is announced.