A month or so ago I won an advanced copy of Michael Hemphill’s and Sam Riddleburger’s STONEWALL HINKLEMAN AND THE BATTLE OF BULL RUN from 100 Scope Notes.
The premise of this book for the 5th-8th grade set is that 12-year-old Stonewall, who’s less than enamored of his parents’ Civil War reenactment obsession, gets sent back in time to make sure the war turns out more or less the way it actually did — despite the interference of a time-traveling neo-Confederate. (No, really.)
So it’s basically a fun way to explain to kids what happened at Bull Run. And it is a fun, and well-done, book in a lot of ways — particularly, in Stonewall’s voice and his sardonic commentary on the reenactments.
The problem, though? It’s fundamentally trying to eat its cake and garner congratulations for its abstinence from dessert, too.
What I mean is, Hemphill and Riddleburger make a big point of putting their book on the side of the Union army’s ultimate victory. Well, uh, that’s good. And actually, the most interesting part of the book is probably the slave boy character. The authors have Stonewall try to interact with him like any other 12-year-old, and the slave, whose name is Jacob, just patronizes him like he does every other white person around, which is, of course, how he survives. I’m really glad they didn’t go for some lame feel-good development where Jacob comes to understand that Stonewall isn’t like all the other white people who are casually determining his future.
But. The book’s real hero is… Stonewall Jackson. A Stonewall Jackson who has magically lived through the intervening centuries and turned into a hippie who sees how wrong he was… so we also see what a great guy he was, even though he was really wrong on this one little issue of slavery that was the defining question of his time, and killed a ton of people defending it and other details like that.
And I’m all, come on.
Because I think what Hemphill and Riddleburger (Virginia residents both) are really trying to do is attach themselves to some piece of Confederate nostalgia for Southern “heritage” while disclaiming its racist implications. And I just don’t think they can do that. I’m certainly not saying they’re racists… I’m just saying they’re liberals who are against racism but also seem to want to avoid pissing off some frankly racist parts of the book market and get their book taught in Southern classrooms. Which is, though not just as evil, at least a little bit as annoying.