Monday, August 31, 2015

1958 Newbery Medalist

Rifles for Watie won the Newbery Medal for "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" in 1958.  Unlike most Civil War novels, it is set on the western front, specifically in (what is now) Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Jefferson Davis "Jeff" Bussey is sixteen-year-old farm boy in Linn County, Kansas, when the war begins in 1861.  Inspired by his admiration for Abraham Lincoln and an attack on his family by pro-slavery Missouri bushwhackers, he joins the Kansas Volunteers at Fort Leavenworth.

Jeff is eager to see battle, but has only a background role initially.  Later he learns the harsh realities of combat, moves from the infantry, to an emergency participation in the artillery, to the cavalry, and becomes a scout.  His time "undercover" on the Confederate side was one of the most interesting parts of the book.  He learns that the Rebels are people just like him, and when he falls in love with a Confederate Cherokee girl, he feels torn between the two sides.

This book held the interest of a non-fan of war fiction throughout.  It's well-written and provides much insight into the day-to-day life of soldiers in the Civil War's western front.  The reading level and content of this book makes it more appropriate for grade six and up.

Author Harold Keith, a native Oklahoman who had a master's degree in history, interviewed 22 Confederate veterans then living in Oklahoma and Arkansas as part of his research for the book.  He also read diaries and journals of mostly Union veterans, and hundreds of letters, including many from the mixed-blood Cherokees who participated in the war, such as family members of the Confederate general Stand Watie of the title (although there is no evidence Watie ever attempted to get the repeating rifles of the title and the fictional plot).

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[Rifles for Watie is available on the lower level of the Dick Smith Library in the Curriculum Collection, call number EDUC PZ7 .K255 RI 1957.]

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