Saturday, August 10, 2019

Historical Book Review: The Thin Gray Line by Michael Kenneth Smith: A romp through the American Civil War

The Thin Gray Line, by Michael Kenneth Smith
Published: May 2019
Independently Published
Genre: Historical Fiction, American Civil War
Pages: 411
Price: $13.99

Reviewers Note: I was given a free uncorrected proof in exchange for my honest opinion.

The Plot: Prepare to suspend all disbelief in order to enjoy this far-fetched coming of age story. This is the tale of wonder-child Luke Pettigrew, a teenaged Confederate soldier, who assigned to be a medic at the battle of Shiloh, because, as he tells us, 'he's good with farm animals'. As the tide turns against the Confederates on day two of the battle, Luke finds a horse and rides into the Union lines to retrieve a fallen confederate battle standard and despite coming under heavy fire returns uninjured. Thereafter he is taken prisoner. While a POW near Columbus, Ohio, a prominent local businessman helps him to escape from prison. Luke promptly falls in love with the man's niece, who is visiting from Tennessee. No explanation is given as to why a prominent man would risk his life and reputation to help Luke escape. Luke makes his way back to the South and the Confederate Army and is made one of Jeb Stuart's scouts because, 'he's good on a horse'. At some point during the three-day battle at Gettysburg, Luke is shot in the thigh. Miraculously and without explanation, Luke makes his way, over 650 miles, to his hometown of Crossville, Tennessee without seeking medical treatment. How he does not die of gangrene, bacterial infection or blood loss is left to the imagination. A local drover, Clyde McCallister, picks him up at some point and he and his wife amputate Luke's injured leg. Whew, all that in the first few pages and the book hasn't even started yet.

Don't worry I'm not going to spoil the plot. Luke recovers from his amputation and learns to walk again. He leaves the McCallister's home and begins an epic adventure which takes him to Richmond, Virginia. Along the way he works again as a medic, meets a spy, runs a smallpox hospital, saves abandoned slaves, learns to help other amputees, and adopts a young black girl, and he's not even twenty years old.

Besides just a story the author raises multiple ethical and moral issues which Luke wrestles with the entire book; parental love and approval, the issue of slavery, the humanity of slaves, and or course the war. This results in frequent flashbacks to earlier years which slows the momentum of the story.

The Characters: Luke is a boy scout kinda guy, upstanding, kind to children, protective of women. Everyone seems to know who he is, including the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Luke is given responsibilities way above his pay grade, doctors, soldiers, businessmen have total confidence in him within minutes of meeting. Some characters Luke interacts with are almost caricatures or just flat out unbelievable. The spy, Cuff, is probably the most gullible spy I ever read about.

The History: The author clearly knows his Civil War history, and the writing is at its best when he is describing battles, soldiers and strategy.

The Writing: The prose is bland and simple for the most part, but the author occasionally slips in a bit of descriptive writing that is incongruous to the rest of the text. For example: "...the hoar frost melted in a stubbornly yielding shadow that portended fair weather." I have no idea what that means. Thankfully, there isn't too much of that in the book.

Conclusion: I was excited to read this book but was really disappointed in the story which had too many 'that would never happen' moments. I think it could have benefited from a good editor to tighten up the plot and sharpen the writing.

I give this book 3 stars (barely) in hopes that the finished product is better than what I was sent to review.

My Ratings: 

1  Star: Not good at all, do not read!

2  Stars: Read only as a last resort, no other books available

3 Stars: Good, enjoyed it, will recommend with reservations

4 Stars: Really good, read this book!

5 Stars: So good, I might read it again sometime! Highly recommend

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