________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 10 . . . .January 20, 2006


Battle Scars.

John Wilson.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2005.
164 pp., pbk. & cl., $8.95 (pbk.), $19.95 (cl.).
ISBN 1-55337-703-6 (pbk.), ISBN 1-55337-702-8 (cl.).

Subject Headings:
United States—History—Civil War—1861-1865—Juvenile fiction.
Loyalty—Juvenile fiction.
Cousins—Juvenile fiction.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Jen Waters.

*** /4



At last, in the eerie silence after the bombardment, rank upon rank of men, shoulder to shoulder, began a steady walk forward. At the regulation one hundred yards a minute, it would take them nearly nine minutes to reach the Federal lines. The army was like some vast, shiny, spiked insect, half a mile wide, slithering forward over the gentle folds of the ground and up the slope. At first the only sounds were the clatter of equipment, the jangle of the bridles and the heavy breathing of men and animals. The men had been forbidden to run or give the famous rebel yell until they were close to the enemy. Nate felt the hot sun on his neck and cheeks and the annoying prickle of sweat breaking out beneath his coarse woolen uniform. He felt a bit light-headed, but his musket was comfortingly solid in his hands. With each step, his hopes rose.


The year is 1862-1863, and the American Civil War is in full force. Cousins Walt and Nate McGregor and the former slave, Sunday, are on seemingly opposite sides of the world: Nate in South Carolina, Walt and Sunday in Cornwall, Ontario. After Nate's father dies, Nate joins General Longstreet's Union Army, watches his best friend Jeff die in his arms, and becomes more than a little bitter and jaded about it all. Meanwhile, in New York City, Walt witnesses a black man being brutally murdered in the streets, and he decides to once again help fight for Captain Fleming's Confederate Army. Sunday is also experiencing troubles of his own; in fighting for a black regiment of the Union Army, he sees the heroic Colonel Shaw and his fellow soldiers gunned down and buried in a mass grave, and Sunday once again becomes a slave.

     When a train carrying Walt's regiment is derailed in Virginia, the men are captured by a Union force that coincidentally includes his cousin Nate. The prisoners are taken to Libby Prison where Sunday is now working. The three young men are reunited again, this time as prisoner, guard and slave. Much of the story's action takes place in Libby Prison, including an elaborate escape that is based on the Civil War's most famous escape in 1864, during which 109 prisoners escaped through a hand-dug tunnel. Of those men, 57 men safely made it to the Union lines.

     A follow-up to John Wilson's 2004 novel, The Flags of War, Battle Scars explores some interesting themes surrounding the politics of war. We see a family split by war which wasn't unusual "especially here in Virginia, where half the state supported the Union and the other half the Confederacy." The same is said for other states, where, although the legislature may have voted for succession, it did not follow that every citizen agreed. In many cases, men in so-called Confederate states trickled over to the other side, and vice versa.

     Also, Nate comes to a sudden realization about the meaninglessness of war: "There isn't going to be an 'after the war.' This is a new kind of war. No one wins. Who won Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg? Sure, one army or the other retreated, but it was ready to go at it again a few weeks later. Battles don't win wars anymore. This war is just going to grind on forever until there are no soldiers left to fight and no homes left to go to."

     While the three men escape successfully from Libby Prison, it is clear that all three have numerous battle scars that will affect them for the rest of their lives: emotional scars, such as the pain Nate and Walt experienced in watching men bleeding or burning to death, and physical scars, such as Sunday's tongue being cut out by his slave owner (an atrocity which occurred in The Flags of War). The war has certainly changed these young men. One hopes that Battle Scars will appeal to young men (ages 11 and up) who have always fancied picking up a gun to fight for their country, as it will show them that wars are games that can only be lost.


Jen Waters is the Teen Services Librarian at the Red Deer Public Library in Red Deer, AB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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