On one level Harry Turtledove's "The Guns of the South" reminds me of the Saturday Night Live skit which asked the question, "What if Napoleon had a B-52 at the Battle of Waterloo?" This alternative history novel about the Civil War asks "What if the South had AK-47s during the Civil War?" The answer is, of course, that Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia would have destroyed the Army of the Potomac and anything else Abraham Lincoln threw at the them and the Southern Confederacy would have won their independence. However, "The Guns of the South" disposes of both the Union army and the Civil War rather quickly, because this alternative history is ultimately about what type of nation the Confederacy would have become. Specifically, what would have happened to the institution of slavery in the wake of a Confederate victory in which conquering hero Robert E. Lee succeeds Jefferson Davis to the presidency? Turtledove certainly makes an interesting case for the angels of the better nature of the Southern Confederacy, however, for me the most ironic aspect of this novel is that this fictional work provides what I have come to consider the most realistic portrayal of Robert E. Lee; yes, more than "The Killer Angels," which is the obvious choice. As a historical figure, Lee has always been distanced by the reverence with which he is held and his own reticence, which made him rather unique as just about the only Civil War general who survived and did not write his memoirs. Turtledove's Lee has clearly come down off the pedestal and there is something so compelling about the way Lee anguishes over political decisions. Of course, this is all imaginative speculation, but I happen to like imaginative speculation. I do not need anyone to work out the theoretical rationale for the time machine that allows the South African patriots to ship back weapons to the Confederacy. The strength of this novel does not rest on physics but on characterization and even though the idea that Lee's personal charisma would have been sufficient to get the Confederacy to abandon slavery, it is simply one of those idealized beliefs I would like to hold on to. "Guns of the South" is a good read, and whether you come to it as a Civil War buff or a fan of alternative histories, I think either way you will enjoy the novel.
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