cover image Bull Run

Bull Run

Paul Fleischman. HarperCollins, $14.95 (112pp) ISBN 978-0-06-021446-3

Like a Shaker cabinetmaker, Fleischman creates stories of deceptively simple design (his books are characteristically slim, his prose as taut as a violin string) that resonate with grace and beauty. His distinctive style has seldom been more effective than in this powerful and poignant account of the first major battle of the Civil War. Reminiscent at times of the technique used to remarkable effect in the acclaimed PBS-TV series The Civil War , the novel relies on individual voices to give a human face to history. The result is at once intimate and sweeping, a heartbreaking and remarkably vivid portrait of a war that remains our nation's bloodiest conflict. In a series of snapshot-like first person accounts, 16 characters (all fictional excepting Gen. Irvin McDowell) from all walks of life--male and female, black and white, Northern and Southern--trace their thoughts, emotions and experiences, from their first bright hopes through the brutal reality of battle. Lily Malloy watches her beloved 17-year-old brother run off to fight for the Union. In Cincinnati, Gideon Adams, a light-skinned African American, dons a disguise and enlists, fearing discovery at every turn. Eleven-year-old Toby Boyce fakes ``Dixie'' on the fife and his audacity convinces the Confederate recruiter to let him join the band. Virginian Flora Wheelworth nurses both Rebel and Yankee in her home near Manassas. Like a fugue, the voices appear, retreat, reappear and blend, gathering momentum and intensity as the current of events pulls the characters inexorably toward the bitter clash by the quiet Virginia stream. Fleischman's artistry is nothing short of astounding. With a few swift strokes of the pen, he creates characters readers care about, and with whom they can sympathize, regardless of their loyalties. Typically deft with a metaphor, here he soars: ``the slimmest of smiles fled his lips, like a snake disappearing down a hole.'' He even manages to inject dry humor into what on the whole is an unflinching look at a grim subject, as when Toby Boyce boasts of his skill on the fife, remarking that he finished ``not . . . much behind the others on most of the pieces and well out in the lead on `Dixie.' '' This is a tour de force that should not be missed. Children's BOMC selection. Ages 10-up. (Feb.)