When I first opened Shades of Gray, I must admit I wasn't expecting anything amazing. I haven't read much historical fiction since middle school, and what I have read in recent years has been easier to enjoy because it's easy to make fun of than for its quality (Unholy Fire by Robert J. Mrazek comes to mind). But I wanted to give Jessica James's new novel about the Civil War in Virginia a shot.
In the first chapter, I was introduced to the two main characters: Andrea Evans, a strong-willed and dedicated young lady who spends her days dressed as a boy in order to act as a courier. Unofficially, she spies on Alexander Hunter, the Mosby-esque Confederate cavalry officer.
I expected the plot to take the cliché route, but the more I read on the more exciting and complex it became. I grew attatched to the characters, felt for them and wanted things for them. I am not exaggerating when I say that I became obsessed with Shades of Gray. I stayed up past 3 AM multiple nights in a row (all school nights, too), reading as many chapters as possible. When my friends at school inquired as to why I was a zombie, I was only too happy to share with them the cause. But falling asleep in Spanish class... and calculus... is a very bad thing, and so I forced myself to refrain from reading for a few nights until I could catch up on my sleep. On a Friday night I finally allowed myself to read more and actually finished the book.
This is embarassing for me to admit, as it's something I rarely do - and never have with books - but I cried. I bawled like a baby for two chapters straight. I could not avoid getting caught up in it all. If cliché at that point, I no longer cared nor noticed.
Jessica James has a way with words. Her ability to speak metaphorically is unprecedented. She not only makes it easy to picture the beautiful locations in Virginia, but makes you want to be there. Even if you dislike the plot, I think Shades of Gray is worth reading for the style in which it's written.
Shades of Gray affected me greatly. Not only emotionally, but it made me realize something. I think as historians we (I'm going to include myself in the historian category for these purposes) forget about emotion. Everything is all facts and figures and tactics. Even when we do venture into the realm of personal histories, what we find are just stories to us. It's difficult to focus on how the people felt (unless perhaps they've left a diary or letters behind). I think film and even historical fiction are more important than we generally accept. Not only can they inspire an interest in history that was never there before in some viewers/readers, but I think they can also bring us historians back to what's really important, make us focus on the feelings instead of the numbers, the people instead of the tactics. Don't tell me you didn't cry (or at least want to) when you saw Glory. This kind of thing has a major impact, something I'd forgotten thanks to my arch enemy, Jeff Shaara, who told me once that historical fiction (other than his) is worthless because it's too easy to make up characters and throw them into a story. No research involved, he said. Thus, worthless.
I want to challenge all of you manly historimen who read my blog to read Shades of Gray. Do you have what it takes to read something fictional and involving romance? Any of you who decide to take me up on this challenge will be handsomely rewarded... somehow or another (still need to figure that out). And if you cry and admit it... well that will have to earn you an even greater reward, I guess! Or if any of you happen to be married to someone who isn't quite into the Civil War thing, this would be a very good way to spark their interest.
Go here and order yourself (or your loved one) a copy. Go go go.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T.S. Eliot
Welcome to Ten Roads! This blog is intended to be a place for me to share my (generally Civil War-related) thoughts and experiences. I try to update once a week at the very least. All comments and readers are greatly appreciated!