Sunday, February 5, 2017

Book Review: Iron Dawn

Iron Dawn: The Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Civil War Battle That Changed History
Richard Snow

This is another book that reminded me of the pure, unadulterated joy of reading. Iron Dawn reads like a novel, but it's all true. Richard Snow has crafted a tightly-focused and wholly convincing story, complete with momentous implications and a ticking-clock countdown.

It's particularly a pleasure to salute Snow's technique. The first half of the book, especially, is organized by character. Each chapter focuses on a particular person, while also advancing the story inexorably forward. This is a hard trick to pull off, but when it works it's a brilliant way of organizing a large cast of characters--it entirely avoids the "wait, who was he again?" phenomenon--while still making overall sense of events.

For anyone who's interested in naval history, or the Civil War, or technology, or ships, or who just likes a good old-fashioned exciting story, it's hard to imagine a book that would push more buttons better than Iron Dawn. It doesn't require any particular specialist knowledge to read, but it could easily give you the desire to acquire some.

There are quite a number of distinguished books that come to mind as companion pieces. Iron Dawn would pair well with:

  • For an eye-popping history of a crucial naval battle that reads like a novel: Incredible Victory, by Walter Lord, which is one of the best histories ever written of anything.
  • For the Civil War in general: anything by Bruce Catton, one of Richard Snow's predecessors at American Heritage magazine. This Hallowed Ground is a good place to start.
  • For a similar use of the progress-by-character technique, with the additional feature that it's a closely related topic: Robert Massie's Dreadnought, which chronicles the Anglo-German naval rivalry leading up to World War I. I may have to reread this now.
  • For a Civil-War topic that finally got the detailed investigation that it turned out to deserve: Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire richly chronicles the British response to the war.
  • For naval history that's true but also works like a countdown-style thriller: Erik Larson's Dead Wake.

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