Jeff Sychterz, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Maine Augusta (Bangor campus), facilitated two energetic Local & Legendary: Maine in the Civil War discussions in Pittsfield this month.
Community members, high schoolers at Maine Central Institute, and Warsaw Middle School students read Soldier’s Heart: Being the Story of the Enlistment and Due Service of the Boy Charley Goddard in the First Minnesota Volunteers by Gary Paulsen. A core group of participants attended both discussions which led to some lively exchanges.
Soldier’s Heart is a short (128 pages), but powerful young adult book that raises a multitude of questions. The first week Jeff started the discussion by saying that what struck him “was that he (Charley) went to war with no idea of why he went to war.” A woman shared that what struck her was “the horror of war, the realism in his thoughts, and that Charley was not mature enough to understand.”
A retired U.S. Marine jumped right into the heart of the matter when he said that Charley was “a case of PTSD waiting to happen!” This led to a discussion on training, leadership, and family support systems from the Civil War to the present day and how all of these factor into the soldier’s experience.
High school students talked about how Charley “wanted to be accepted as a man like we want to be seen as adults” and that “he doesn’t know anything about war, like we talk about war but we know nothing about war.”
Veterans then shared why they enlisted: “I believed in the country. I saw it as a responsibility.” Participants discussed duty and responsibility, terms that we still associate with manhood; a woman suggested that duty is what kept Charley with his unit even when his mother wanted him to come home. A young Civil War re-enactor added that “you follow your brothers; you’d be a coward to run.”
The second discussion picked up where the first one left off with returning and new participants. The issues of why Charley fought and whether the war turn him into a man continued to create spirited discussion. In the book Charley said that the only thing the south understood was steel. Someone commented that similar comments are made today about our enemies.
Participants debated whether wars are fought for economic reasons, or for ideals like freedom? A teacher said that her students were more upset over the killing of horses than the killing of people. Another woman responded that it might be because the soldiers depersonalized the men that they were killing, but a horse doesn’t fit into this scenario so it is harder to be emotionless.
In both sessions Jeff asked, “Is there something that novels teach us that we can’t get from history?” Although participants did not directly answer his question the fact that people came back a second time to discuss the book and continued their conversations in the parking lot says something about the value of novels to extend our understanding. Through discussing Charley and his experiences participants were able to explore their thoughts about war and their response to it.
Join members of the “Local & Legendary: Pittsfield in the Civil War” team at the First Universalist Church on Sunday, May 3, at 2PM for their final celebration: “Reflections of the Civil War,” with the award-winning a cappella group Chameleon and a dramatic presentation by MCI students of the short play, A Civil War Veteran Returns, written by David Greenham. Refreshments will be offered following the formal presentation. The event is free and open to the public.
Thanks to Janet Lyons, Consulting Project Coordinator for Maine Humanities Council, for writing this post.