Soldier's Heart Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
Use the following discussion guide to talk with your class about the moving story of Charley Goddard in Soldier's Heart by Gary Paulsen. In this guide, you'll find a brief summary of the story, along with discussions of some of the themes, the conflicts, setting, and characterizations in the book. Finally, there are questions to help guide classroom discussions on some of the more difficult issues in this book.
Young Charley Goddard, 15, can't wait to get to be a part of the Civil War! He is so caught up in the excitement and patriotism of the people around him that he lies about his age so that he can enlist. At first, Charley is bored by military life at Fort Snelling. But just when he starts to think about leaving for home, the call comes for his regiment to travel.
Soon after, Charley takes part in his first battle, The Battle of Bull Run. At Bull Run, Charley sees a friend killed by a cannon, and watches many other men die. After taking part in the horrific battle, Charley is convinced that he will not live through the war. In his second battle, Charley is amazed to find himself acting like an animal in his rage to kill the enemy. He's even more amazed to find himself crying when a young stranger is shot in the stomach — a death sentence in this war.
In his third battle, Charley engages in hand-to-hand bayonet fighting. Afterwards, believing the enemy has hit him, he goes to the surgeon's tent. There, he finds that the blood all over him is the blood of other men. When the surgeon's hands grow too cold for him to work, Charley helps build a wall using the bodies of dead men.
The fourth battle is the bloodiest, and most famous, of all-Gettysburg. Here, Charley finally is hit, and is convinced that he will die. Though Charley does make it home after the war, his life is forever altered, and very much shortened, by the battles he's been through. Charley suffers from having a "soldier's heart."
A major theme in Soldier's Heart is the horror of war, and how war changes a person. The author uses events that really happened in the Civil War to bring home the brutality of war--the building of a wall with dead bodies, young men shot in the stomach being left to die, horses being killed to feed starving men. These events must change the men involved. When Charley leaves for Fort Snelling, he is a smiling, fast-talking boy, the apple of his mother's eye. Once Charley returns home, he is a different man-a broken man, in constant pain, unable to hold a job, and looking forward to his own death.
Another theme in the book is that these young men who join up to fight in wars are caught up in a patriotic fever-they are not even fully sure about what they are fighting for. For example, on page 2, Charley simply knows, "There will be a shooting war. There were rebels who had violated the law and fired on Fort Sumter and the only thing they'd respect was steel, it was said, and he knew they were right, and the Union was right, and one other thing they said as well-if a man didn't hurry, he'd miss it."
Later on, Charley is confused when a black Southern woman thanks him for fighting in the war. Is it right for young men to be encouraged to go to war through parades, songs, and slogans? How do you think Charley would respond to such persuasive devices after going through the war?
The major conflict in Soldier's Heart is the conflict of war. Charley fights the Rebels because he is from Minnesota, and people from Minnesota fight for the Union, while people from the South fight against it. War is described in vivid terms throughout the book. Describe some of the scenes of conflict in the book. How does Paulsen make you feel like you are there, in battle, with Charley?
Another conflict in Soldier's Heart is the conflict of conscience that all the soldiers face about whether to stay and continue in the awful war, or to return home to their families. Why do you think more men didn't simply run? What keeps Charley going from one battle to the next?
When Charley travels by train from Fort Sumter through the South, he sees things he never imagined. Find the description of the poor farms in Maryland. What makes them seem so different to Charley from his own farm?
Even the fruit trees that the troops feed on seem ominous in the South when the men develop awful bowel trouble. Trees are also the place where the enemy may be hiding. What would it be like if you felt danger, even from the trees around you?
Charley goes through major changes as a result of being in so many battles. One of the reasons that Charley joins the army is so that he will really be a man. Think about what Charley is like when he goes off to Fort Sumter, eager for his chance at war. Describe Charley during and after his very first battle-do you think it's possible for him to ever be the boy he was when he left for war? Talk about how Charley changed as a result of the war.
When Charley travels through the South, he sees many very poor families on farms. This leads him to believe that the rebels won't be able to fight because they don't have proper supplies. How do Charley's ideas about the rebels change as he becomes experienced in battle against them?
After the first battle, Charley doesn't get close to the other men in his division. He knows that they might die. Yet he does talk to a rebel soldier who convinces him to trade goods when he's on watch. This soldier points out (on p. 69) that, "Here we be, both farmers, talking and trading goods and tomorrow or the next day we got to shoot at each other." Do you think these words change Charley's ideas about the men that he's fighting? How do you think Charley feels when he tries to talk to this man the next night, and gets shot at by the enemy?
- Why do you think the book is called Soldier's Heart? Given the last chapter of the book and Author's Note on page 103, what do you think it means to have "soldier's heart?"
- Talk about how Charley makes up his mind to go to war. He and his mother both have been to meetings, seen parades, and heard slogans and songs that drum up support for the war. Do you think that this kind of rallying for war exists today? Where do you find it, and what is it like?
- Charley wants to go to war because he believes it will make him a man. Do you think he would have wanted to go if he'd known what lay ahead of him? Do you think that "becoming a man" was worth it for Charley?
- Charley has to shoot horses, both to defeat the enemy and to feed starving men. Why do you think Charley finds it more difficult to shoot horses than people?
- One of the ways the author makes the conditions of war immediate to us is to describe what the soldiers have to eat and drink. Imagine what it would be like to drink water that tasted of the blood of wounded men. Find other examples where Paulsen describes such appalling conditions in vivid terms. Do you think you could survive under such conditions?
- In the last chapter of the book, Charley thinks about "all the pretty things." He begins by thinking about "all the sweet things when it had started; waving pretty girls, Southern summer mornings, cheering children, dew on a leaf . . ." Later in the chapter, Charley thinks about his Confederate revolver. "It was a pretty thing, he thought. The revolver was as pretty as anything he'd seen. . ." Why do you think Charley thinks of the revolver as "pretty"? What can this revolver do for Charley?
- The Civil War took place more than a hundred years ago. Why do you think that the Civil War is still so fascinating to people who live today? What issues were at stake?
- Have your class compare and contrast The Civil War to another war your students may be studying. Is Soldier's Heart a universal characteristic of War, or does it refer to only The Civil War?
As a Community Project, have students interview veterans. Ask students to prepare questions and conduct interviews in small groups. Or, you may want to ask a veteran to visit your class to share their experiences of War. Encourage students to use tape recorders and take notes when they interview. Afterwards, have student write about their impressions of the interview.