Best-selling historical author shares stories from World War I

War novelist Jeff Shaara emphasizes the importance of studying historical justice


Lee Chapel Spring Lecture and book signing. Photo by Sutton Travis, ’19.

Sutton Travis

When war novelist Jeff Shaara first started writing, he didn’t know he would produce multiple bestsellers. He only knew he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Shaara spoke on “A Storyteller’s View of the First World War” to members of the Lexington community Thursday in Lee Chapel.

The Lee Chapel Spring Lecture was part of an ongoing effort to commemorate Washington and Lee University’s participation in the Great War.

Lucy Wilkins, Director of University Collections and Lee Chapel and Museum, introduced Shaara.

“He is a man whose writing talent has made history come alive for so many of us,” Wilkins said.

But first, Shaara had to realize his ability as a writer, which didn’t happen until after his father’s death in 1988.

Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel, The Killer Angels, was the basis for the 1993 film Gettysburg. The film’s success led people to approach Shaara about continuing his late father’s story with a prequel. Shaara agreed, although he had no previous writing experience.

His first novel, Gods and Generals, spent 15 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. And that was just the beginning.

Shaara has now written 15 historical novels over a range of wars from the Mexican-American War to World War II. With each book, Shaara strives to write to the standards his father set.

“Don’t pick up some biography – you’re getting the biographer’s point of view,” Shaara said. “I’m not a historian. I try to be what my father aspired to be all his life – a storyteller.”

Before beginning a new novel, Shaara will spend six months to a year reading 40-50 biographies, memoirs and other books about the characters he will be writing on. He also travels to the sites he is writing about.

“It doesn’t have to be my job to make stuff up,” Shaara said. “I just tell you the story – it’s fun enough.”

Shaara noted that a researcher can never identify a singular cause for a war because each soldier had their own reasons. His goal is to discover those reasons and tell their stories.

“It’s about what the cause was for this guy, to risk killing someone or being killed for the war,” Shaara said.

Shaara mainly spoke on his World War I novel, To the Last Man: A Novel of the First World War, which tells the story of the Lafayette Escadrille.

The Escadrille was composed primarily of young American volun- teer pilots – just 13 years after airplanes had been pioneered in Kitty Hawk, S.C.

“What kind of courage does it take for a guy to climb into this thing made out of fabric and sticks?” Shaara said. “An extraordinary number of these young men wanted to do this.”

Shaara emphasized the importance of incorporating humor into his novels.

“1914-1918 are the grimmest years in human history,” Shaara said. “But you can’t write page after page of grim.”

He told how some of the men in the Lafayette Escadrille adopted a lion cub from a nearby zoo, named the cub Whiskey and taught him how to pounce on important visitors to their headquarters.

“Think what that meant to those pilots, who are wondering, ‘What if today’s the day I die?’” Shaara said. “You combine all of that [grimness] with the humor, and it makes a three-dimensional story.”

Margaret Samdahl, a member of the Lee Chapel and Museum staff, attended Shaara’s talk. She said she wished people could have described history to her while she was growing up as vividly as Shaara did.

“[History] suddenly just came alive to me,” Samdahl said. “It just opened up a whole new window of history to me.”

Shaara implored his audience to continue learning and reading about historical figures.

“It’s about getting to know these people, because it’s us. These people are just us,” Shaara said.“Please remember who these people are, because if you don’t, no one else will.”

Shaara will release his next novel, The Frozen Hours: A Novel of the Korean War, on May 23.