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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

The Chaos Of The American Civil War

The Red Badge of Courage - Stephen Crane

Written in 1895, The Red Badge Of Courage tells the story of Henry Fleming, a young man who joins the Union army during the American Civil War. Before his first engagement he suffers great anxiety about how he will acquit himself in the heat of battle. When the moment comes he quickly becomes convinced that the Confederate Army has overwhelmed the Union troops and flees.

After a period of wandering aimlessly, he joins a group of wounded men heading away from the battlefield. However, he quarrels with another soldier who hits him on the head with a rifle butt. Now that Henry has an obvious wound, he is able to rejoin his regiment and everyone assumes he sustained his injury in battle. Subsequently, he fights bravely and wins the praise of his commanding officer.

I found the style of this novel very difficult to engage with. The narrator always seemed to be at one remove from his characters, describing them in a journalistic rather than a novelistic fashion. Perhaps this is explained by the fact that Crane was a journalist before turning to fiction.

There is very little plot and the real substance of the book is a series of extended mediations on the chaotic reality of war and on the highly subjective notion of courage. All this is achieved through a focus on the thoughts of the protagonist, who is not a particularly articulate or self-aware individual. This naturally presents the author with a challenge but it was one that I did not feel convinced he had completely risen to. All in all I found this a disappointing read.