How do you take two stories set 155 years apart, and weave them together in such a way as to be telling one story, without boring or losing or confusing the reader? That requires loads of skill and heaps of talent! Ryan Petty did it, and he did it well in his 326-page paperback, The Life He Never Knew. This is a delightful piece that teens, adults and Civil War buffs can all enjoy.
The Life He Never Knew begins in 1862 with Thomas, a fictitious Confederate Soldier, and his best friend, Nathan, as their Texas regiment moves along to fight in the Battle of Shiloh. The reader is drawn into the fateful meeting between Thomas and Sarah, and her piercing questions, before Thomas’s unit crosses the Sabine River into Louisiana. This chance meeting leaves an indelible mark on his mind and heart throughout the rest of the long trek and on into the gory battle that ensues. The theme that perpetually haunts the main character is the possibility of dying and forfeiting the life he never knew.
Most of the story revolves around two stirring and exhausting days of fighting at Shiloh. The theme begins to burble up during a break in the initial conflict. After a surprise morning assault into a Yankee camp, the starving Texas Confederates take a breather, feasting on much needed vitals left behind by the fleeing northern companies. During that short 30-minute reprieve, they humorously banter back and forth a bit, until a nerve is touched in a seasoned veteran, Robert. Robert starts off on a short, sobering speech as he describes his acceptance of his own mortality for “the Cause.” He pronounces that if they’re willing to die in the following battle, they will be giving their country that much more strength it needs to survive. “Guys, these are the lives we’ll never know. […] for many of us, this will be the end” (137). The stage has now been set for the unfolding battle that will take them one by one.
Over the next few chapters, Petty launches Thomas, his friend Nathan, and their regiment through one fierce and gruesome stage of the battle after another. First a day of costly successes, which takes Thomas’s best friend. The night of the first day at Shiloh wraps the reader and Thomas in the gloom, sorrow and grief at the death of Nathan. The next day dawns and brings in its wake a dismal, fatiguing series of defeats for the Texas regiment. The final scene gasps out its last breath as most of the regiment is decimated, and closes with the death of Thomas.