Battle Lines

When I was going to UC Davis, one of the best classes I took was on the 1960’s with Professors Ari Kelman and Eric Rauchway. The class was fan-freaking-tactic. We learned about things like the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, listened to musical gems like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” and watched clips of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley not being very nice to each other. Oh, and there was some Vietnam war and some Kennedys and a bit of Civil Rights thrown in there somewhere too. It was life-changing stuff, for sure.

So when I heard that Professor Kelman had written a new book, I was mildly interested. OK, who am I kidding? I squeed like a freaking twelve year old fangirl. I had previously read his book on the Sand Creek Massacre, which anybody who is interested in public history should absolutely read immediately, and so I was definitely planning on getting Battle Lines. I pre-ordered it. Like six months in advance. I didn’t even pre-order the last Zelda game that far in advance. Just sayin’. So, you might be asking, “What makes Battle Lines so special?” Well, I’ll tell you…

It’s a freaking Civil War comic book!!! I mean, it’s technically a graphic novel, but how awesome is that? Pretty gol-durned awesome if you ask me. And I assume you’re asking me since you’re reading my blog. Unless you’re just here to stalk my spelling and grammar mistakes and shit. In which case, you can seriously GTFO.

But anyway, kind of like this blog is history for people who hate history, this book is the Civil War for people who don’t want to read long boring books about the Civil War. And the cool thing is, a lot of the information is there anyway. It’s just presented in a way that isn’t boring. Author/illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and author/professor Ari Kelman tell the stories of the Civil War in a series of illustrated vignettes prefaced by more dense historical material staged as newspaper articles. Instead of bogging down the narrative with the minutiae of troop movements and general names and dates and battles, they are able to unfold the multilayered stories of the Civil War in broad silent strokes – the stark images of battlefield carnage, the prayers of a dying amputee felled by new weapons technology, the slow setback-laden march towards abolition, or the matter-of-fact staging of battlefield photography where dead soldiers are merely props to the historical record.

I’m not going to say anymore because I don’t want to spoil it (the North wins). On a more personal note, those of you that know me in real life are aware that my middle little has Autism. One of the things that we have been struggling with for-practically-ever is his monofocus on cars. Whatever you want to talk about, he will find a way to make it about cars. He wrote 40 essays in Kindergarten about cars. For Easter, it was about what kind of toy cars he might find in his Easter basket. For Christmas, it was a persuasive essay about the benefits of cars over reindeer-drawn sleighs. The boy is cuckoo for Cadillacs, crazy about Chryslers, mental about monster trucks. I really, really tried to learn about cars so that I could connect with him, but he could tell I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about (BTW, spoilers and fenders are not the same thing, in case you weren’t aware). But he stole Battle Lines from me as soon as I got it in the mail, and he didn’t let me touch it for at least a week. Now we have all sorts of things to talk about. Mostly minié balls and amputees and the fact that six million tons of flesh festered on the battlefield at Gettysburg, but it’s a start. I’m kinda OK with that.

So, if you don’t really like history but want to learn more about the Civil War, or if you are a teacher or homeschooling parent looking to introduce some Civil War concepts into your lessons, or if you are the parent of a bloodthirsty eight year old, or if the thought of a freaking history comic book makes you squee, you will probably like this book. Read it. Do it. You won’t regret it. 

Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman, published by Hill and Wang, New York, 2015.

Professor Kelman’s Website:

Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Website: