Thursday, May 17, 2012

Five Books to Read: The Red Badge of Courage

After completing my own book (GetItHere), I thought it worthwhile to discuss books that shaped my mindset and style, those books that meant enough to warrant multiple readings and quiet reflection. One of those five books (all of which will be discussed in this blog but in no particular order) is detailed below...

Previous discussions:
Nothing Like it in the World by Stephen Ambrose.
127 Hours by Aron Ralston.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.


Just read it. I mean, I'm going to spend some time here discussing why you should read it and the impact it had on my reading/writing, but it's a freaking classic of American literature by one of our country's greatest novelists. I don't care if you think it's a book that feels like something you were forced to read in high school. In fact, you probably were. Even so... read it again.

This is a great American novel.

The Red Badge of Courage is one of the first books I can remember reading. As far back as I can recall, I've noted the impact it's had on my style. I've read it several times and come away with something different each time. The copy I have (one of my most treasured books) is dog-eared and torn. Excerpts have been highlighted and underlined. If one of my later classes in school asked for examples of imagery or character development, sentence structure or plot devices, I would use this book as a source... and a primary one, at that.

The main character is an everyman, and that's the point. Crane refers to him as the 'youth' more than he does his name. Even the other characters (the 'loud' solder... the 'tall' soldier) are more often described rather than named. Why? Does it take away from those characters in some fashion and make them more difficult for the reader to picture? Or, does it make them anyone and everyone we know? Does generalization serve a higher purpose here? It did for me.

For those of you living under a rock, the book centers on a young man in an unnamed battle of the Civil War. He's never fought before and fears he'll run from the enemy during the first battle. He does. Much of the rest of the first act is what he sees and does as he flees around the battlefield. Just as suddenly, though, he's returned to his camp. He fears scorn and ridicule. He fears the truth. But, a random injury conceals his cowardice, and the next day he picks up arms again. This day, he distinguishes himself in some of the most richly detailed battlefield prose you'll find. Crane is a master of it, and it's that masterful depiction of war that would eventually make him a war correspondent in Europe and Cuba. Strangely, Crane had never seen war. He knew little of it before writing The Red Badge of Courage, yet it is seen today as one of the most accurate and fair representations of war.

How much did this book affect me growing up? I recall choosing the book in an assignment in which we were told to find a piece of literature that described Nature as a being and played a considerable role in the development of the protagonist. I immediately jumped on Crane's work and was shocked when my teacher told me that she didn't think it held enough substance on the topic to be useful. As I read through it recently (remembering both the assignment and her words), I recognized the dozens of highlighted passages that I used in my paper. Crane is all about using Nature to help define and detail his characters. Nature herself is a character that frustrates and emboldens the youth in the story. She's a hindrance one chapter and a help the next, and the descriptive moments in the book give Nature as much of a presence as any of the other characters.

It's a great book. It's descriptive and detailed. It's general and far-reaching. Reading it now, I see how much of an impact it had on my writing.

The blow to the youth's head is strangely reminiscent of the bullet that Shawn Kidd takes in the temple.

His flight and stumble into the copse of trees where he finds the dead soldier are comparable to Kidd's flight from the chalet near my novel's end.

His inexplicable determination once he returns to his regiment are mirrored in Kidd's utter defiance of those around him and single-mindedness.

The Red Badge of Courage is a quick read... and it's a great read. For fans of military history, character evolution, and just good writing, it's a must-read.

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