Monday, June 29, 2015
Newbery Review: Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith (1958 Medal Winner)
As most of you know, I live in Oklahoma. My family and I were driving in the surrounding region one day, and I suddenly found myself wishing there were more non-cowboy and Indian and non-Dust Bowl historical books based in Oklahoma, Kansas, and the like.
And not long afterward, I finally picked up Rifles for Watie at the library.
Jefferson Davis Bussey, sixteen-year-old and farmer's son, leaves his home in Kansas to join the volunteer Union Army. We follow Jeff through his training, his first whiff of the gunpowder, and his introduction to the beautiful Cherokee (and stubbornly Confederate) girl Lucy. But when an especially assigned mission goes awry, Jeff finds himself stuck among the notorious Stand Watie's Confederate raiding party, masquerading the gray uniform and discovering terrible information: someone from his own Union detachment is smuggling rifles to Watie.
At first, the book is slow-moving for modern eyes, but trust me and read on past the first act. Things quickly pick up from a trudging march into the color and vibrancy of an Oscar-worthy film. The author, Mr. Keith, spent ten years researching for this story, interviewing Civil War veterans and traveling to the places where his characters, both real and fictional, fired upon each other, drank Yankee and Confederate coffee, and bonded in brotherly friendship. We get a detailed tour of the lives of the era's Native Americans, and a glimpse into the lives of African-Americans. We experience the goodness and the wickedness of both armies. There's action and history and comedy and tragedy and even romance. This book is the historical package deal, and one of the most accurate, detailed, and unique pieces of children's fiction that's out there.
There is, of course, bloody war violence, some drunken behavior, abuse toward slaves, and the book's reading level is rather advanced, so it is more of a Young Adult novel than a Middle Grade. But nevertheless it comes highly recommended.
Rating: Five stars
Recommended reading age: clean enough for 12+ but will probably appeal most to 15+
Favorite characters: Jeff, Noah, Lucy
Content for parents: Battle action, civilians are looted, execution is discussed, no language except for a couple instances of the n-word, kissing, bullying, some drunken behavior, some stereotypical dialogue
For more Marvelous Middle Grade Reviews, check out Shannon Messenger's blog here!