The Guns of the South
Author: Harry Turtledove
Published By: Ballantine Books
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I picked up The Guns of the South, it was for three simple reasons: I had a gift card to spend, I had never read anything by Harry Turtledove before and the book promised a different ending to the Civil War. I love reading about history, especially the Civil War and have always wondered, “What if…” Then, I started reading the novel and after the first chapter, I found myself saying, “What the…?!”
The story opens with Confederate General Robert E. Lee formulating his next maneuver in the war. His letter regarding this matter is interrupted by rapid gunfire of the sort he has never heard before. Rushing out to see what is going on, he is introduced to Andries Rhoodie who has a proposition to make. His organization, known as AWB, will provide the Confederate Army with a key advantage in the war, a never before seen repeating rifle called the AK-47
This is when I put the book down and said, “Huh?!” and that’s when I noticed I hadn’t paid enough attention to the cover of the book. Sure enough, there was General Lee in full Confederate regalia, holding (albeit rather awkwardly) an AK-47. Reading the back cover, I had to shake my head. What had I gotten myself into? But, I had already started reading and the book itself was extremely well-written. So, I decided to forge ahead and hoped things wouldn’t get too silly for my taste. I needn’t have worried.
Although wary of the AWB, the Confederates accept their help and, armed with the AK-47s and a seemingly limitless supply of ammunition, they defeat the Army of the Potomac, led by General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee, now famous in his victory and seen as a viable candidate for the next Confederate president, still does not trust Rhoodie and his people who have no begun to show their true colors in their views on slavery as well as other issues. Learning that the men of the AWB are from the future, a future in which the South is defeated by the North, is shocking enough for Lee, but uncovering the real reason the AWB has offered aide to the South is another thing entirely. And finding out what happens when the AWB’s vision of the Confederation’s future are disregarded…well, that can prove deadly.
The Guns of the South is told through the eyes of two people, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and First Sergeant Nate Caudell of the 47th North Carolina. In deciding to tell the tale in this fashion, Harry Turtledove allows us to see the whole picture of the events unfolding in the novel from two very different points of view. On the one hand, you have a General responsible for leading his country to victory, but at what cost? And, as the country moves forward and Lee thinks about leading the country further, what direction should he choose and will he gather the support to do what he believes he must in the name of justice and righteousness. On the other, you have a school teacher turned soldier who is right in the thick of things having barely survived Gettysburg and wondering whether the South has a chance at winning this war. Once the war is won, he too must now choose a direction - what direction his own life will take. True, it may not effect millions, but in actuality, some of the choices he makes will have a great affect on quite a few people.
Harry Turtledove is called the master of alternate history. I don’t know if that much is true. After all, this is the first book of his I have ever read. I can say this much though - I was totally engrossed by his imagined version of what the Civil War could have been like if the South were given an advantage over the North that they never had in real life. What’s more, Turtledove had to do his homework, reading up on the Civil War probably more than I ever have. Most of the people in this novel are real, from the frontline generals and historic figures to the grunt soldiers. Sure, he gave them alternate histories, but never did I find that any of the more well-known historic figures acted out of character in this novel. Turtledove’s attention to facts and detail made The Guns of the South a novel that seemed quite realistic in nature.
Once the shock of the initial couple of chapters wore off, I found that I couldn’t put the book down. When I had to put it down, I found myself talking about it with various friends and co-workers. The Guns of the South is a very well-thought out, captivating novel and an experience in alternate history that I found I couldn’t tear myself away from. I’m quite thankful for the experience and urge other history buffs to check out Harry Turtledove and his novels of alternate history. They offer up quite a bit of food for thought.