Soldier's Heart: Being the Story of the Enlistment and Due Service of the Boy Charley Goddard in the First Minnesota Volunteers - Gary Paulsen

In June 1861, when the Civil War began, Charley Goddard enlisted in the First Minnesota Volunteers. He was 15. He didn't know what a "shooting war" meant or what he was fighting for. But he didn't want to miss out on a great adventure.

The "shooting war" turned out to be the horror of combat and the wild luck of survival; how it feels to cross a field toward the enemy, waiting for fire. When he entered the service he was a boy. When he came back he was different; he was only 19, but he was a man with "soldier's heart," later known as "battle fatigue."

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Based on the story of real-life Civil War soldier Charley Goddard, this is a historical fiction look at what his experiences with the Minnesota Volunteers might have been like. In the summer of 1861, Charley is only fifteen years old, technically too young to enlist but like many boys during times of war, he decides to lie about his age in order to have an adventure / life experience outside of his simple country upbringing. As Paulsen describes, Charley is still too young to be able to grow a beard and only recently had his voice crack, yet he's contemplating fighting for his country, possibly to the death. Heavy stuff for a teen! Goddard serves until the end of the war four years later, having seen and survived unspeakably gruesome scenes and yet still only nineteen years old! By war's end, Goddard was said to have "a soldier's heart" because he seemed, at least to others, to have come through relatively unscathed by the experience. However, as this novel lays out, in reality that was more than likely anything but true.

 

In the afterword, Paulsen explains that the real Goddard ended up fighting in nearly every major battle throughout the duration of the war. While the fictional Charley experiences the horrors of The Battle Of Bull Run, the real Charley was battling a violent case of dysentery at the time. This novella looks at what Charley might have experienced in his first three battles.

 

While this was not the most amazing Civil War story I've ever come across, it does have its merits and I think it serves as a good starting place for introducing teen readers to the reality, grimness and horrors of the battlefield as well as giving a realistic depiction of what camp and battlefield conditions might have been like for soldiers of this era. It touches upon what PTSD looked like in a time before we had a name for it. Though the writing is simple in style and geared toward school age children, given the gruesomeness of certain parts of the story -- violent deaths of horses, building walls out of dead men, a soldier's suicide -- I would recommend this be introduced to teens rather than middle grade or younger (or at least do a pre-read and do a judgement call for yourself).