What We’re Reading: Iron Thunder

In Which the Homeschool Mom Continues Her Education

We’re reading another historical fiction novel from the Civil War era, Iron Thunder: The Battle Between the Monitor & the Merrimac. I remember the story of the first iron ships in battle from my own school studies of the Civil War, but our attraction to the book began with its author, Avi. Avi has written a number of books we’ve enjoyed, including the Crispin series (more complex characters; set in 14th century England)  and the Poppy stories (talking animals that transcend the device and are more interesting to older readers than you’d think possible) — we’ve read the three Crispin books and three of the four Poppy books this year. I’ll have to write about them, too – it’s hard to write when you’re so busy reading!

Anyway, Iron Thunder tells the story of the construction of the Monitor, the Union ship that was among the first “ironclads,” through the eyes of a 13 year old realistic but fictional character. Young Tom works in the shipyard as an assistant to the boat builder, and we get a fair close-up of the ship’s design and its many doubters. Right now, we’re just about at the point where the ship is going to head off into historic battle off the coast of Virginia against the Confederacy’s own ironclad. Reading about the size of the huge canons – and their one mile range – made a big impact on Nick. Avi does a good job weaving this kind of technical detail into the story naturally.

In addition to discussion of the Civil War, Avi’s book about the Monitor has brought up discussion about the physics of building an iron ship. He convincingly depicts the tension between those who think a boat built of such a heavy material will not float and the ship designer who explains the concept of displacement to young Tom – and to readers. We also see the use of steam power on the water, with the ship’s huge appetite for coal and loud clank clank – but no masts or sails. Here, Avi does a nice job of capturing a major transition in naval technology, and we can see the loud but lacking-in-sails ship motoring among sailing ships toward a new age.

A point of high interest is Tom’s interaction with Confederate spies, known as Copperheads, who have figured out that the young Brooklyn boy may have good information about the construction and capabilities of the Monitor. They know how to entice a hungry boy from a poor family, and Tom faces an internal battle as well as some threatening situations as he figures out how to respond to the opportunity to enlighten the Southern sympathizers in exchange for food and money.

Because I was born and raised in Virginia and have lived in North Carolina and Mississippi as well, I admit to a kind of Southern-centric notion of the Civil War, the tragedy of slavery notwithstanding. The burning of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley by Philip Sheridan’s Union forces seemed recent during my childhood, and I remember riding through the countryside with my father, who pointed out to me the one or two old barns that still stood from that era (many other structures are still standing from those years), because the northern invaders had burned barns as part of a scorched earth approach to destroying Southern supplies.

The hunger of 1860’s Southern cows whose hay and shelter had been torched seemed a very real part of the Valley and my home to me, and I knew it meant hungry soldiers and civilians, too, living right where I lived. Virginia battlefield visits, trips to Harpers Ferry, and my beautifully written but seriously flawed 1960’s fourth grade Virginia History textbook, conspired to help me see Civil War history from a particularly Southern point of view. To this day, the states’ rights argument makes sense to me — even as I always hated it that it was the indefensible practice of slavery, and later, the indefensible practice of segregation, that have been among the tests for the concept.

Let’s not even get into life in Mississippi, where Boy Scout trips to Vicksburg left my older sons with observations that there, The War was definitely not over.

So Avi’s book for kids has this unabashedly Northern view, this different ring to it, with the war seen through the eyes of Tom from Brooklyn, New York. We learn his father was killed in battle while “defending the Union,” and my Southern cows and their farmers suddenly have a literary foil in the shaping-of-adolescents’-cultural-attitudes realm.

Of course, yes, I’ve long since read and learned about the Civil War from other points of view besides a Southern one. And Avi’s book is in its way sort of simplistic, a lower reading level than his more complex Crispin novels, definitely late elementary-to-middle school fiction. But I can’t go without saying that along with the obvious pluses of enjoying the story and history in Iron Thunder, I’m also feeling the expansive frisson of having a childhood world view challenged unexpectedly.

Maybe because it’s juvenile fiction, Iron Thunder reaches into my younger self and nudges long-held defaults and underpinnings, even as I know I’ll continue to communicate “Southerner” in a fair and beloved way to those who can’t quite grasp my world, either.

I doubt the book will have this effect on everyone; for most readers, probably Nick included, there will just be the typical historical fiction impact of learning stuff painlessly. I’ll take that, with a small serving of rock-my-world on the side.

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This entry was posted in A Writer's Life, Historical Fiction, Homeschooling Boys, Literature, Reading, Resources and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What We’re Reading: Iron Thunder

  1. Stephanie G says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. I have not read this book, but as a girl I read Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and loved it. I’ve reread it a couple of times as an adult, and I still like it. I love juvenile historical fiction, and those types of books tended to make a stronger impression on me as a kid than other types of fiction. Books like Summer of My German Soldier, The Bronze Bow (!), and a little book by Larry Ward called Thy Brother’s Blood (about two brothers fighting on opposite sides during the Civil War).

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