I wish this book had been published when I was in elementary school, learning about the Civil War for the first time. The typical way history is taught leads to a dissociation with the events of the past, wars especially. The motives behind war, the mechanics of the movements of armies, and the individual stories are lost, and brutal time periods in the world's history are reduced to names, dates, and places. When ten-year-olds are being taught about a war fought a century and a half ago by (mostly) adults, it can be hard to capture their attention, and keep it. Sure, battles can be awesome, if you're of that mindset, but actually relating to what happened is very difficult.
In this book, a small part of the Civil War is told through the eyes of Homer P. Figg, a twelve-year-old from Maine who's had a hard life. Homer's unique personality - he's brave and loyal, but loves to stretch the truth - lends itself well to the story Rodman Philbrick is telling. Homer has several adventures exploring the American countryside for his brother, who has been illegally drafted into the Union Army. Towards the end, Homer sees battle - "the elephant" - himself. The descriptions of the battle are heartrending. Homer is so young, and battle makes men so old. Though this book is for kids, there is little shielding of the realities of war.
It's the point of view of the protagonist that will make the Civil War come alive for kids who read this book. Instead of learning about hardtack, cooking in the 19th century, the way battle wounds were treated, the true nature of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the names of generals from a textbook, all of these make up Homer's day-to-day life. Maine in the 1860s is portrayed as a very real place, with genuine inhabitants, good and bad people. Yes, sometimes Homer's antics are a little farfetched - he's a very lucky 12-year-old - but that's part of what makes the book not quite as serious as it could have been. The levity introduced by what Homer gets himself into is a welcome balance between the realities of war he experiences.
I did feel that Homer's character took a few pages to establish itself. I didn't have a handle on his true scampish nature until a bit later. But that also stays true to his narration; people leave bits out and don't explain everything at once. I think kids will be much more quick to identify with Homer.