I think I first became aware of this book when I was growing up and reading a lot of children’s and young adult books set in American schools. Somewhere along the line, one or more of the characters in one or more of these books had to study The Red Badge of Courage in English class. I can’t really remember…after all, it was about twenty years ago.
Even though I’ve been aware of the book for all that time, and even though Civil War history is something I’ve been interested in for a while, I’ve never really been motivated enough to read The Red Badge of Courage until I came across the ‘Back to the Classics’ challenge.
I have mixed feelings about the novel. It tells the story of Henry Flemming (referred to almost exclusively throughout the novel as ‘the youth’) as he faces his first active service in the Union Army. The particular battle is not named in the story, but in the afterword (titled ‘The Veteran’) we learn that it was the battle of Chancellorsville. As ‘the youth’ waits with bated breath for his first battle, he wonders whether or not he will be brave enough to stand and fight, or whether he will run when faced with enemy fire. Of course he soon finds out for himself.
I’ve heard it said that the depiction of the Civil War in the novel is so accurate that many people are surprised to learn that Crane was born several years after its end. This may be true, but personally I found Crane’s obsession with using colour in his descriptions a little unnerving – particularly as I lost count of the number of times things were described as ‘red’, ‘purple’, ‘blue’, ‘yellow’, ‘orange’ or ‘black’. Let’s just say that didn’t do much for me.
I also found that the beginning of the novel dragged quite a lot. Perhaps this was deliberate, as well over half of the novel was focused almost exclusively on the youth’s inner thoughts and feelings, and the first few chapters especially depicted the seemingly endless waiting before the battle. It was not until ‘the youth’ rejoined his regiment on the second day of the battle that the story became really engaging.
In spite of the fact that I first learned of this book in my childhood, I was surprised to find it lodged in the ‘Junior Fiction’ section of my local library. As it turned out, that was probably about right in terms of the reading level, although I doubt the same could be said for the subject matter. (Are graphic descriptions of rotting corpses and gruesome war wounds suitable for children?) I’m not sure that many children would have the willpower to read it all the way through either, unless they were being forced to read it for school…it’s no Harry Potter. If a child was going to read it, I think boys would enjoy it much more than girls. Other than that I’m not going to make a recommendation on this one, it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea.