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Monday, July 8, 2013

Graphic Gettysburg (and Lincoln too)!

Butzer, C.M,  (2009) Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel  New York:  HarperCollins

     The Gettysburg Address is a powerful speech in part because it was a response to a country deeply at war with itself and was a recognition of the depth of the pain and the uncertainty of the future of the young nation.  Getting students (or anyone) to read past "Four score and seven years ago..." can sometimes be a remarkably difficult thing for history and social studies teachers to manage.    Then along comes C. M. Butzer's  Gettysburg:  The Graphic Novel.

     Like O'Connor's Journey into Mohawk Country or Baker's Nat Turner, this graphic novel uses images to provide the context for a primary source document.  That is to say, the first 50 pages (two thirds of the book) use a comic book style featuring panel movement and speech and thought balloons to convey the violence of the battle of Gettysburg, the way it toughed the soldiers, the nearby townsfolk, the local officials, and the nation.  That way, when President Lincoln takes the stage and clears his throat, the reader, like the audience, finds himself or herself intensely interested in what the president is going to say about this carnage.  As the speech continues, the images in the panels show us not only how the audience is receiving the speech, but also the historical moments that lead up to the speech, the devastated battlefields that lend solemnity to the occasion, and some of the implications the speech would have for the future -- all the way to our time.

This book won't necessarily be everyone's cup of tea -- but it may be an excellent way to engage students who think that history is uninteresting -- mainly because they haven't been able to see that every historical event involves thousands and thousands of individual stories and connections.  There is something about seeing the faces of the soldiers, the bystanders, the wounded, and so on, that changes our perceptions.  As you can see from the above illustrations, the art is good and well thought out.  Butzer's strength is that he lets us into so many individual lives --though that can also be a drawback.  I sometimes wished that we could follow a particular character across several panels instead of always moving on to the next scene.  But that is a relatively small complaint.

The bottom line is this.  If you teach middle school or high school history, this would be a really good book to use in your classroom library (or even in your curriculum -- though if you decide to incorporate it into a unit you teach, please let me know, I would love to find out how it went.)

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