The Ghost Cadet and The Stolen TrainSeptember 16, 2008
Over the past couple of days, I’ve reread two very different Civil War stories. Both of them are children’s books, and I’ve owned each of them for more than ten years, but aside from the usual trappings of children’s historical novels, the similarities end there.
The Ghost Cadet, by Elaine Marie Alphin, takes place in the present day — well, 1992, when it was published, I guess — and tells the story of twelve year old Benjy Stark, who, with his sister Fran, has been sent to spend spring break with a grandmother he’s never met. Benjy and Fran live with their mother; their father left them several years ago. The grandmother, Miss Loeta, is his mother. The Starks live in an unspecified northern state, and have no knowledge of their heritage, but Miss Leota, who lives in New Market, Virginia, is so involved with her southern heritage that, since she retired, she has taken to writing Civil War history books for children. Except that she rebukes Benjy when he calls it the Civil War, and insists that he say call it the War Between the States instead.
I remember, when I first read it, being willing to accept that “The War Between the States” might be the more appropriate name, but being troubled when Miss Leota said that it had nothing to do with slavery.Rereading the book, I find that she says no such thing, but Benjy thinks to himself that he’s never understood why anyone would go to war over slavery, and it makes much more sense to him when his new friend Hugh tells him that it was all about the invading Yankees. This is much more troubling. I can accept Miss Leota, granddaughter of a Confederate soldier, spinning things that way, but a kid with no predisposition to believe either side not seeing how anyone could get so worked up about slavery? Never mind that, to go on the evidence of this book, the North invaded the South in order to domineer over Southerners and steal family heirlooms from the dead bodies of their solders. Aside from Benjy’s skepticism about slavery, you wouldn’t know that black people exist in Alphin’s universe.
Anyway, Benjy meets Hugh, a dead cadet from VMI who fell at the Battle of New Market in 1864, and who becomes The Only Friend Benjy Has Ever Had, which means Benjy has to sneak out in the middle of the night a lot and help him recover a wtch he lost on the battlefield. And it’s quite good, if you like that kind of mid-nineties kid meets ghost/travels back in time/solves a historical mystery kind of book, which, in the mid-nineties, I really did.
I do honestly enjoy Ghost Cadet every time I read it, but it also kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth, so I followed it with The Stolen Train, by Robert Ashley, which was first published in 1953, and is even more vague about the causes of the war than Ghost Cadet, i.e. it doesn’t offer any explanations I can’t stomach. In The Stolen Train, the Civil War is simply something that is happening that 15 year old Johnnie Adams and the rest of the Union Army would like to end as quickly as possible. The story would probably read equally well if the characters were Confederate soldiers, although then it wouldn’t have the same basis in historical fact.
The Stolen Train is an exciting adventure story about twenty Union soldiers who hijack a train — the famous General — and use it to sabotage the Western & Atlantic railroad, lifting rails, burning bridges, and cutting telegraph wires. Ashley’s version of the chase — known as the Great Locomotive Chase or the Andrews Raid — is based on published accounts by two of the participants, but if you didn’t know it was supposed to be history, it wouldn’t matter. It’s a very innocent story in a lot of ways — a clean, good-natured sort of adventure story. It’s not the kind of story that sticks with you, but it certainly doesn’t leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.