Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Soldier’s Heart deviates from Paulsen’s other work as it does not directly have autobiographical analogues to his own life. However, it is partially modeled on the real-life exploits of Charley Goddard, a Minnesota farm boy who decides to enlist in the Union Army during an earlier point in the Civil War.
Therein, the story itself does have biographical tenets, but the narrative distances itself from Charley (as Charley does from others during the war) by unabashedly looking at his naïveté and romanticism surrounding the conflict. He enlists thinking that this shooting war, as he calls it, will be more exciting than a circus, even though he has never been to a circus either. Paulsen continues with his trend toward family dissolution by having Charley leave his mother behind in Minnesota for the war under the auspices that he can occupy his dead father’s position as a provider for the family. Knowing that he is driven to the war, Charley’s mother relents.
His romantic delusions, though, are quickly shattered. Couched within Paulsen’s laconic narrative is an exhaustive history lesson of the Civil War from Charley’s perspective. The longer he remains within the conflict, the more the battles, deaths, and disturbing sensory impressions he receives change his perspective from boy to man in a matter of months. Age no longer becomes a determinate factor of maturity for Charley; though possibly younger than Nelson, a new recruit...
(The entire section is 418 words.)
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Soldier's Heart is a blunt depiction of Civil War combat. Based on the real-life experiences of Charley Goddard, the novel is an account of Charley's experiences from the time he enlists in the Union army at age fifteen to a couple of years after the Civil War when he is twenty-one and his life is a shambles. The title of the book is a phrase used by Americans to label Civil War veterans who seemed mentally lost because of the war. Paulsen points out that the same syndrome was called "shell shock" during World War I, "battle fatigue" during World War II, and is presently called "post-traumatic stress disorder."
From the moment Charley thinks, "I am not supposed to see this, God. No person is supposed to see this," Charley falls ever deeper into a depression in which he believes his own death is inevitable. Even comes to welcome it. He avoids other soldiers because they seem as doomed as he, and he does not want to become close to men who may die. The deaths of people he new from his Minnesota home, even the death of cocky Nelson, whom Charley knew for less than a day, weigh heavily on his mind. Soldier's Heart follows Charley's effort to withdraw into himself and away from the horror of the battles he fights.
(The entire section is 222 words.)