I feel bad. Really I do. Because I just don’t feel like I am about to be 100% fair to Russell S. Bonds' Stealing the General.
From the start, my relationship with this book was somewhat doomed. I was at the library and the book I really wanted, that I have had on reserve since March, still was not in. I was about to get on a bus going down to the twin metropolises of Barnegat/Waretown, so I needed something desperately. I skimmed through the new books section and there just wasn’t a lot there. I saw the title on this book, didn’t know what it meant, so picked it up and looked. Train theft during the Civil War? All right, that fit in with the theme of this summer, which, as you may remember, is Reading About Topics I’ve Previously Avoided. I have many family members who are really into the Civil War, so I have always taken a defiant disinterest in it (yes, this is what passes for rebellion in my family—a shrug at the mention of Shiloh, a whatever for Gettysburg. I know. This is pathetic.). But I am, however, very fond of trains, so I thought I could make it through it.
In the preface, Bonds discusses how this famous incident in Civil War history has been much mythologized in books, movies, and historical accounts. However, the real story, I mean, the REAL, factual, honest to god, absolute truth story of a plan by a band of Union soldiers to steal a locomotive, take off with it and burn railroads and bridges behind them in order to disrupt the Confederate transportation system, has never been told before. Until now. By him. Uhhh…thanks. So I was already put off by the somewhat self-laudatory tone before even making it out of Roman numerals. But then again, maybe that was just me.
From that point on, it was all downhill. The rest of the book never captivated me. First off, I didn’t find Bonds to be a particularly compelling writer. I can’t exactly say what makes one piece of writing more enthralling than another (I guess I should and probably could if I wanted to think about it, but not now), but I constantly found my mind wandering while reading this book. Okay, this could also be too many other things rattling around in my giddy brain as well as my stated willful disinterest in the topic, but anyway, I just never was really drawn in.
That’s not to say it was all a disaster for me—one section about the escape from prison by some of the raiders was well-done. Bonds obviously combed through every available piece of primary source material and does, I am sure, important work in comparing the various different accounts by the survivors of the raid. But it just never captivated me.
I also felt like the book was a little bit padded. This is an example of “event history”, the type of history writing that is very popular now, where a writer focuses in tightly on a specific event and uses that to spin off stories and details about a particular time and place. Some writers do this very skillfully, so that you come out of a book feeling like you’ve been immersed in a whole other world and have in the process learned a lot (like I could mention…but I won’t…). But I didn’t feel this was particularly done well here. A lot of the information about the Civil War and various other things felt kind of tacked on, like, okay, did I make 300 pages yet? I could also have used more rail road and less Civil War. And there was an awful lot of personal detail that didn’t seem to really evoke much about the people, along the lines of, “He was a handsome man with a thick mustache…he was a small, clean-shaven wiry man given to wearing Panama hats…He was a pale man with an enormous beard…” (yes, it was the era of big facial hair). It’s great that he found all this detail, but in the end it just felt kind of like window-dressing to me.
But again, this seemed to have been just me. I went back and read some reviews by, like, you know, real reviewers, and they all seemed to have just loved it. And I’m sure it will be a great find for anyone who needs more Civil War stories. So I will not not recommend this book. Read it yourself and judge.