Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418
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 to his unit, he is not nearly as green as Nelson, and that becomes a determining factor of life and death.
Death itself surrounds Charley. He quickly determines that his own is imminent and that there is nothing that can stop it. Just as quickly, Charley begins to covet death, not for himself necessarily but for that of his enemy, the rebel Confederate army. This does not come without complexity either. In one of the more complex exchanges of the entire work, Charley and an unnamed rebel discuss trading supplies while both are stationed in a hot zone. Charley comes to discover that these people he is fighting and killing are people very similar to himself: young farmers with families back at home. When the war ends and he finally returns home, it becomes difficult for Charley to separate himself from the atrocities that he has seen and has committed from the civility that now surrounds him. Survival, at this point, becomes one of reintegration into a world he tried to protect but does not understand anymore.