CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 9. . . .October 30, 2009.
March Toward the Thunder. [World]
New York, NY: Speak (Distributed in Canada by Penguin Group Canada), 2008.
298 pp., pbk., $10.99.
United States-History-Civil War, 1861-1865-Fiction.
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
"You a mulatto or an Injun?"
He'd been asked that more than once after arriving at camp... To each he gave the same answer in a patient, neutral voice.
The year is 1864, and 15-year-old Louis Nolette has been recruited into New York's 69th Regiment to fight for the Union in the American Civil War. With his mother, he came to New York state from their reserve in Canada to look for work. He joins up because he is promised a high quality uniform, regular pay and a rifle.
The 69th Regiment, known as the Irish Brigade, was started as a militia in 1851 by Irish potato-famine immigrants looking for work. Later, the Irish Brigade became part of the New York state militia. Although war losses led to recruitment of non-Irish volunteers, the brigade marched into battle under a green banner embroidered with a golden harp.
Joseph Bruchac, a Ph.D in Comparative Literature who has taught writing classes and has published over a hundred books, has an instinct for what is interesting. For instance, through Louis's eyes, we see the ballet-like movements of the eight man crews on the field guns who have made loading into such a precise art that they can fire four rounds in a minute. Songs of the era, such as "Bonnie Blue Flag," "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" and "Just Before the Battle, Mother" are another example of authentic detail, and, in context, seem fresh and new.
As an Abenaki, Louis is neither part of the industrial North or of the slave-owning South. By presenting the story through an outsider's eyes and emotions, Bruchac achieves distance and objectivity with regard to the bitter struggle that still divides Americans. The blunders of the war are not whitewashed here.
Readers meet other interesting outsiders, like a kindly Shakespeare-quoting sergeant whose talents are being wasted in war. One of Louis's comrades, a slightly built private named Merry, claims to be searching for a brother somewhere in the Union lines. The soldiers don't get a chance to bathe very often, and Merry avoids the few opportunities they have, for reasons that are divulged later on. Merry's type of story is well-documented in Civil War annals.
Louis makes friends with another native soldier, a Mohawk - traditionally the enemy of the Abenaki. After a battle, he has a brief exchange with a Cherokee who is fighting for his home and, consequently, for the Confederacy. He also meets a Private Thomas Jefferson of the US Coloured Troops of the 18th Corps, who claims that he is not a descendant of the famous President, but of his brother, who "was a little faster getting to the slave quarters that night."
Bruchac also introduces historical figures: Walt Whitman, poet, civil servant and hospital volunteer; Clara Barton, pioneer nurse; and General Ely S. Parker, a Seneca engineer who was General Ulysses S. Grant's friend and personal secretary.
Louis, himself, was a real person. Joseph Bruchac's great-grandfather was an Abenaki named Lewis Bowman, born in Canada and recruited into the Irish Brigade. Bruchac explains, in his “Author's Note,” that Mr. Bowman was reportedly reluctant to discuss his Civil War experiences and wept when his son (Bruchac's grandfather) enlisted in World War I. Bruchac's sister, the family historian, researched Bowman, enabling Bruchac to construct this fictionalized version of their great-grandfather's war experiences.
In other novels, Bruchac has also dipped into his aboriginal heritage for material. Readers of First Nations descent, American Civil War buffs worldwide and general readers will find much of interest in March Toward the Thunder. The novel implies that ordinary people of various ethnicities should bond together in the face of circumstances beyond their control.
Ruth Latta's latest novel, Spelling Bee, (Ottawa, Baico, 2009) is a little bit "historical" in that parts of it take place in the 1960s.
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