Soldier's Heart by Gary Paulsen. 1998. Delacorte Press. 106 pages. Ages 10-15.
June of 1861 finds fifteen-year old Charley Goddard living in Winona, Minnesota as the country prepares for battle. The state is a-buzz with the excitement of a coming war with the Confederate secessionist states. Everyone is sure this will be a very short-lived war and that the Union will whip the Rebels into submission in no time. Not wanting to miss out on what he sees as a great adventure, Charley lies about his age and enlists.
However, it does not turn out to be what he expected. Initially, the new recruits are disappointed by the boredom of training and the poor quality of the food. But then they travel in luxury by train from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., enjoying fine dining and the attention from cheering crowds and pretty girls as they pass through towns along the way.
But soon, Charley and the other naïve recruits are immersed in the horrors of war as the Union finds the Rebels to be a much more formidable foe that expected. Charley witnesses death and destruction all around him, and his fear and anger drive him to do things he never would have thought himself capable of before the war. Though he survives the war, he will never be the same again, physically or mentally, and returns home aged beyond his years and unable to escape the horrors that haunt him.
I read this book because I was considering giving it as a gift for my 10-year old nephew who is obsessed with the Civil War. And when I say obsessed, I mean really fixated on it and with a very romanticized view of it. He talks about it all the time and has a Civil War uniform he wears All. The. Time. It's really kind of strange, to be honest. But I don't think he really has much understanding of what is was all about or any idea what war is really like, so I think this book might be good to help give him a more realistic view. He is also a very reluctant reader, so Paulsen's books are a good choice for him since they are short and fairly easy to read, and high-interest subjects and characters that are particularly appealing to boys. He previously read Hatchet and liked it.
Soldier's Heart is a fast-paced fictionalized story based on the life of the real Charley Goddard. It does a good job portraying the real horrors of war and the effects they have on the soldiers in the middle of it in an age-appropriate way, and the author gives it context with the foreword and end notes. The forward discusses what we now call "post-traumatic stress disorder" through history: what contributed to it, other names it has been called, and how those who suffered it were treated. The author's notes at the end also explain how the story is a fictionalized account of the real Charley Goddard, and how he died, with sources cited.
I think middle-school aged readers with an interest in fast-paced stories with lots of action, especially those interested in military history and fiction, would like this book, and it would be a good option for reluctant readers in particular. It would likely appeal to those who have liked Paulen's other books, (particularly Woods Runner), Harry Mazer's Boy At War series, and the Bloodlines series by M. Zachery Sherman.
Other Books By This Author
Gary Paulsen has written many short middle-grade novels including both realistic fiction and historical fiction, and is most well-known for Hatchet, the story of a boy's survival after being stranded in the Canadian wilderness, which has several sequels.