Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Clash of the Ironclads: Iron Thunder: The Battle Between the Monitor and the Merrimac, A Civil War Novel by Avi

Newbery author Avi, whose The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (Summer Reading Edition) took the reader to sea as a able seaman of 1832, returns with an up-close and personal story of the transformational battle of the Monitor and Merrimac, ironclads which forever changed warfare at sea.
In Iron Thunder (I Witness) we meet thirteen-year-old Tom Carroll, taken to the Brooklyn Naval Yard by his war-widowed mother, who hopes to find him a job to help the family survive the early years of the Civil War. Small but nimble, Tom is hired for seventy-five cents a week to be the errand boy to John Ericsson, designer of the Union's first ironclad warship, to be christened The Monitor, but known as "Ericsson's Folly" among the Navy Yard workers who doubt it will float. Still, Tom's family desperately needs his small salary to supplement his mother's earnings as washerwoman, and Tom soon becomes Ericsson's ship's boy as the unlikely craft takes shape.

Soon, however, Tom realizes that he is being shadowed by a couple of men who offer him gold coins and steak dinners in return for information about Ericsson's invention. Tom suspects that the two are "Copperheads," Southern sympathizers who are spying to learn if the Union's ironclad is a threat to the South's blockade-breaking Merrimac. Fearing that he himself could be hanged as a spy if caught with the men, Tom begins to spend his nights below deck on the half-finished ironclad, but when, just as the Monitor is to be launched and sail southward, Tom tries to slip home to tell his mother good-bye, only the brawling ability of Tom's streetwise Irish friends helps him escape the Southern spies.

At last, the Monitor begins its slow and perilous journey to Hampton Roads, nearly sinking partway in a powerful squall. Tom is both fearful and exhilarated when he sees the destruction caused by the Merrimac's first outing against the Union's blockading warships. The battle which follows on the next day, when the little Monitor steams bravely into the path of the advancing Merrimac, is thunderous and terrifying as the two ironclads fire their mighty cannons at almost point-blank range. With the failure of the Monitor's speaking tubes, Tom Carroll is thrown into a pivotal position as he relays commands from Captain Worden in the pilot house to the men firing the ship's two cannons from within their iron-sided revolving turret. After four hours, the Merrimac begins to take on water and withdraws from the battle, allowing the crew and captain of the Monitor to claim a partial victory.

Avi's interweaving of historic fact and personalities makes for a tightly written adventure story, with the slightly fictionalized Tom Carroll a believable first-person observer of the sequence of events which may have changed the outcome of the Civil War. This first title in a proposed I Witness series is well-written and documented with period photographs, drawings, and maps, and museum objects taken from the Monitor itself. Iron Thunder (I Witness) is a an engrossing adventure story which would also make great collateral reading along with a middle school Civil War unit.

Indeed, in this book Avi offers a work of fiction with the supporting back matter of an historical work. An extensive glossary is included, along with author's notes which include information about the new USS Monitor Center Museum, which displays the turret and pilot house and numerous objects recovered from the sunken wreck of the ship and offers the visitor a full-sized replica of the vessel and a simulation of the momentous battle itself. A bibliography, including the full account of the confrontation by the surviving Union officers, is also appended.

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  • This looks great. My 2 homeschooled kids and I are starting a unit on the Civil War... my 10 year old boy will eat this up!

    By Blogger Marbel, at 10:09 PM  

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