Written by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman
Published by Hill and Wang
Review by Brian Burmeister
One hundred and fifty years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the President’s legacy and the Civil War itself continue to fascinate our nation. As Battle Lines points out in its preface: more books have been written about the Civil War than days have transpired since its end. (Some 10,000 more, in fact.) Amidst so much information about that era, how then can a book stand out as remarkable?
By encompassing a wide section of time and a wide range of issues, graphic novelist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and historian Ari Kelman have created a text which gives life and meaning to the years surrounding the American Civil War. Instead of just a history, Battle Lines gives us the stories of people’s daily lives, challenges, and hopes for the future.
Organized in 15 chapters, the book closely examines specific moments in time, ranging from the years leading up to the War through the years immediately after. To assist with grounding the reader in the realities of each moment, every chapter begins with the front page of a newspaper. Through the mechanism of these introductions, the reader is given the necessary context for the stories that follow. From these clippings, one learns of the political climate and the war efforts—all valuable information to set the stage for the stories at the heart of Battle Lines. Whereas the newspaper introductions focus on the major moments, the major players, the events and the people school children are taught about in classrooms all across the U.S., the focus of each chapter is on the War’s unsung heroes and forgotten villains, the everyday people who lived during this difficult chapter for America.
I was greatly impressed with the care Fetter-Vorm and Kelman took in being as true as possible to history. Inspired by surviving photographs, letters, and objects, the stories in Battle Lines hope to be as true to life as possible and, as the authors write in their introduction, “These . . . are the faces of the war. These are the stories behind the statistics.” These stories are compelling, powerful, and moving. They highlight that the War was many things to many people. We see stories of women’s roles as nurses at the front lines. We see the class struggles that erupted into violence in New York City. We see slaves escaping in the night after the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. Through the book’s 15 chapters we see a fine representation of the issues of the time (during the buildup to the War, the War itself, and the Reconstruction), issues that affected different regions, different races, different genders. The book gives voice to the voiceless: forgotten figures of our past, whose powerful stories show us that the Civil War was as complicated as it was deadly.
While the realities of the war were violent and gruesome, Fetter-Vorm does a wonderful job establishing the grim realities of war, including the tragic loss of life and limb, without overwhelming the reader with unpalatable levels of gore. This balance was masterfully done; while one might call the art in Battle Lines a PG-13 version of the horrors of war, one cannot read Battle Lineswithout feeling the Civil War was one of the most heartbreaking eras of the American story.
In general, the art itself is beautiful. Despite the comic nature, each drawing is realistic, giving each person unique attributes and clear emotions. Additionally, the simple, muted color palate gives each chapter a feeling of unity, as well as a somber tone.
Battle Lines is an absorbing, attractive, and haunting book. For anyone with a strong desire to learn more about the Civil War, or anyone looking for a graphic history with real heart, I simply cannot recommend the book enough.
Brian Burmeister (@bdburmeister) is Program Chair of English and Communication at Ashford University. He is an ongoing contributor to the Sport Literature Association and Cleaver Magazine.