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I soon read all the books – relentlessly out of order, since I could only check out what happened to be on the library shelf at any given moment. Ironically, I got to the first book, The Guns of Bull Run, last of all – somebody had checked it out and kept it way overdue, probably without even reading it.
The series alternates between two Kentucky cousins, one from a wealthy, politically prominent family, who serves in the Southern army, and the other his poorer and more bookish cousin, who fights for the North.
Reading these books turned me into a full-fledged Civil War buff, in large part because, along with being compelling stories with believable, admirable characters, the novels also gave a clear, fair-minded, accurate presentation of the issues at stake and the strategies and tactics involved in major battles of the Civil War.
In other words, they were smart books that were completely satisfying to young readers on every level.
Considering that Altsheler first published this series from 1914 to 1916, it was almost a miracle that the books were still in print and available in a public library. Certainly they have fallen out of print since then.
But not because they aren't good.
A lot of books that used to be considered wonderful for children are almost unreadable today. You read them and think, somebody gave this to a child?
Of course, children, being as yet unjaded by experience, are often more patient with bad writing than adults. This explains the continuing popularity of Edgar Rice Burroughs' early books, which are so badly overwritten that most adults can't get 20 pages in.
But when I downloaded Altsheler's Civil War series – in fact, his entire oeuvre – for my Kindle, and started reading them using the Kindle app on my Android phone, I discovered that Altsheler was an excellent prose writer, clear and vigorous.
The adventure stories are still exciting. Even though, as an adult who has since read many histories of the Civil War, I realize that often the boys are sent on missions whose results would not have had much value in the real world, Altsheler is scrupulously making sure that for all their excitement, the stories never change history.
That is, he doesn't make his fictional heroes vital to the outcome of a battle; they participate, but there is no fakery about everything hinging on their heroism.
To a young reader, though, focused on the immediate adventure – a message that has to be delivered, a mission to observe Union preparations for the defense of Washington, DC, avoidance of an ambush laid for a troop train through the mountains – this isn't an issue. The adventure is vital to the hero, and that is enough.
The quality of writing is, though, of another time. Altsheler makes few concessions to a youthful vocabulary. Young readers will learn words they didn't know. I think that's a good thing.
He also wrote in a time when everyone still knew about horses and saw them as a frequent means of transportation. There are things he doesn't explain because his readers would know them – though young readers today wouldn't have a clue.
I think that's a good thing, too.
Several of the series take place in a coherent universe – that is, characters from one series are the ancestors of characters in another. There's also the occasional frisson of mysticism – the heroes have a slightly supernatural talent for this or that very-useful skill. This only makes the stories more exciting, the characters more admirable, without sidetracking us into fantasy.
Altsheler remains an outstanding writer of excellent books for young readers. And his work is no longer out of print. Not only are Kindle editions available cheaply, there are paperbacks that seem to have started appearing only in the past year or two.
I'm glad to see the books back in print. Sample the electronic books – which can generally be downloaded for free from Amazon and elsewhere – and you might find that you want to provide them to your young readers in paperback form.
You also might simply enjoy reading them yourself. I'm not just enjoying them for the nostalgia of recovering my childhood favorites – I'm enjoying the stories for their own sake.