4 out of 4 stars
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As the Civil War gripped America in gruesome fashion in the 1860s, a 17-year-old boy from Waverly, New York enlisted to help the Union Army defeat the Confederates. Named after a famous abolitionist, Rufus Sayre Harnden would go on to provide a first-hand account of his wartime experience through his personal letters. Author Phoebe Sheldon eventually gained possession of her great-great-grandfather’s letters and has used them in conjunction with her own extensive research on the Civil War to provide this comprehensive memoir titled, Rufus: A Boy's Extraordinary Experiences in the Civil War.
In a little over 300 pages, this book gives a complete and raw glimpse into the heart, mind, and spirit of a naive young man thrust into the ugliness of war. His own words reveal his emotions as he describes the loneliness of being away from home, longing for familiar faces and a home-cooked meal. From seemingly mundane details like never knowing what he would be doing in the coming hours, to witnessing the death of his friends, Rufus chronicles it all. The young man wrote with an old-soul wisdom and poetic elegance as he described his experiences. At one point he writes: “The air blowing off the field was already heavy with a fetid smell I came to know all too well. I imagined I saw sickly yellow tendrils of it reaching across the torn ground, seeping from the bodies in long fingers that crawled up my legs, twined around my torso, and finally crept up my face into my nostrils.”
The soldiers were scarcely provided for with rations, and were expected to beg for food from farmers to stave off starvation. Dysentery was common, as was the frequent amputation of limbs, which were sometimes severed for surgical practice. Rufus himself was nearly subjected to such extreme measures. The change in Rufus as time elapses is noticeable as he becomes more accustomed to the horrors of war, describing with resigned acceptance things like witnessing young soldiers getting their legs blown off and crying our for their mothers. My heart ached from some of the descriptions and at other times I felt such warmth toward Rufus who had an incredible compassion and conscience. He is a truly loveable narrator, and following along with his story was profound.
There was so much to appreciate about this book. I found it exceptionally well-orchestrated in production and research, with Sheldon's dedication to the fruition of this book really shining through. Using the letters as a foundation, Sheldon was able to fill in the blanks and provide all the necessary background information, context, definitions, and statistics. She starts each section with Rufus' words as they were originally written (often grammatically incorrect), then follows up with a smorgasbord of footnotes. After that comes stunning black and white photos related to the reading material.
This is where I would provide suggestions or feedback for improvements, but I have none in this case. The book is well-crafted, well-researched, beautifully organized, and provides an authentic and honest look into the life of a young soldier at war. This book has earned 4 out of 4 stars, and targets an adult audience interested in war-era historical nonfiction.
Rufus: A Boy's Extraordinary Experiences in the Civil War
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