Literary Analysis: Bull Run

Dear Reader,

Last school year we began a literary analysis series based on the book Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. You can find my review of that book here and accounts of or earlier efforts at literary analysis here, here and here. Since we are going to be studying the Civil War this year in history, I chose another book discussed in Deconstructing, Bull Run by Paul Fleischman, for our next attempt.

Bull Run is a bit of historical fiction on that epic first battle of the Civil War written from the point of view of no less than 16 characters, 8 from the south and 8 from the north. Since this gets a bit confusing, I had one child jot down notes on each character as we read through so that we could keep them straight. For the most part we did remember them after a while, at least the most interesting ones. My kids, of course, could remember them without referring to the notes better than I could (oh, to have a young brain again!).

Having finished the book, we then sat down to discuss it. I’ll give you first the notes I used to lead the discussion and then tell you how it went.

Bull Run Discussion:

  • Read to the students pp. 88 through the first paragraph on p.89 of Deconstructing Penguins
  • Ask: What do you know about the Civil War? (We actually didn’t do this part as we are currently studying it and I know it is fresh in their heads.)
  • This book is historical fiction. What does that mean? Define both aspects of this term and distinguish it from history. See pp. 90-91 of Deconstructing for help if need be.
  • How do we know what happened in the past? Introduce the idea of primary and secondary sources. Define these terms and list examples of each. (See pp. 91-92 of Deconstructing.)
  • Put the names of the 16 characters on cards and hand them out at random to the students. Each student will play the part of the character on their card. Interview them each in turn asking questions like “which side were you on?” and “how did you feel about the war?” A handful of the characters are given as examples in Deconstructing; for these I relied heavily on their questions.
  • Finish up by talking about point of view and how each character had a different take on the battle and a different experience of it. Read the poem about the blind men and the elephant found in Deconstructing.

I didn’t think this discussion went as well as our earlier ones. A lot of that is probably my fault. I should have done more to prepare good questions on all the various characters or else just discussed the few already done for me in Deconstructing. My younger two kids in particular remembered very little about their characters (we accused them of being shell-shocked 😉 ). We did manage to introduce the ideas of primary and secondary sources. They did not immediately think of non-written sources like pictures and bullets. We ended, as Deconstructing does, by discussing the character who is a journalist and how even he selects what he is going to show to his readers and thereby gives them a false picture of how things are going. My oldest wins the prize for best observation of the day: He noted that two of the books that he has read on the build up to the Civil War both compare slavery in the US to slavery in other places, but one compares it to ancient slavery on places like Greece and Rome whereas another compares it to the much harsher treatment received by slaves in the likes of Brazil. In these choices of what to include, the two books end up giving very different pictures of just how barbaric American slavery was.


One response to this post.

  1. […] we have before (for the most recent example see this post), my kids and I recently made a stab at literary analysis. We used as our guide Deconstructing […]


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