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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

CAIN at GETTYSBURG (audiobook) by Ralph Peters

There is a problem with a book about Gettysburg in which George Meade is the most likable character...

Published by Blackstone Audio in 2012
Narrated by Peter Berkrot
Duration: 15 hours, 20 minutes

It is easy to give a simple shorthand review of Cain at Gettysburg as an attempt to re-make the magic of Michael Shaara's classic Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels from the Union point of view. To be fair, I will give more than a simple shorthand review, but I will be comparing the two books quite often.

The title Cain at Gettysburg is a biblical reference to the story of Cain and Abel - the story of when one brother killed another. It is the first of many religious references throughout the book.

Like the Shaara book, Cain at Gettysburg goes back and forth between the two armies as they draw together for the fateful Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863. While The Killer Angels focuses on the senior Confederate officers, this novel focuses on the senior Union officers. The Confederate officers are probably the more interesting characters but Ralph Peters' strongest points in Cain at Gettysburg are when he focuses on the never-ending political rivalries at the top of the Union command. The constant strivings and squabbles of both sets of officers are readily apparent. 

Cain at Gettysburg comes up short in two key areas when compared to The Killer Angels

1) It fails to convey the larger overview of the battle to the reader. However, its battle details are much more gritty and it does include street fighting in Gettysburg itself, something that is often overlooked. 

Union General George Meade (1815-1872)
2) It fails to create a character that the reader can really root for, with the exception of Meade. Peters manages to do something just short of miraculous in this book. He makes Union General George Meade the single most likable and sympathetic character in a book filled with characters of all backgrounds and ranks. Meade was, by all accounts, one of the most gruff and difficult officers in the Union army. He was nicknamed "Old Snapping Turtle", but in this book he comes off as a likable curmudgeon (Meade always gets the short shrift, so this was an interesting change of pace.) In contrast, Lee comes off as an uncaring megalomaniac. 

But, there is a problem with a book about Gettysburg in which George Meade is the most likable character - it means that there is really no one to root for as you read (or listen, in my case). There were a whole slew of regular Confederate soldiers as characters with complex back stories that all led to the same conclusion - religious faith is a fool's game at best. There were a similar number of Union soldiers from a German unit based out of Wisconsin. They were often funny and interesting but I found myself not really caring about them so much as wishing they would finally get the recognition that they deserved.

A rather long section of the book is all about the political stratagems of Union General Daniel Sickles. It is wearisome, at best.

A very big positive to the audiobook is the performance of the narrator Peter Berkrot. He is brilliant. He creates a number of accents (his German accent is fantastic!) and literally yells, whispers and growls his way through the book.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters.

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