We’ve been studying the Civil War this semester and while I had several books selected on the subject for my son to read to himself we were given the opportunity to listen to someone else read aloud the G.A. Henty novel With Lee in Virginia. The narrator was Jim Hodges of Jim Hodges Productions who specializes in unabridged recordings of Henty titles. The physical CD we received had an MP3 format which works in computers and some stereos (like the one in our car). We were also given a PDF Study Guide for the same title. We listened to the first portion of the story while traveling to and from a Civil War reenactment of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Pilot Knob. The whole story takes 11+ hours so a good portion had to be listened to at home.
Each track corresponded to a chapter of the novel – the chapter title even appeared on the CD player. There were no subdivisions within the chapter so if you couldn’t listen to the 30+ minutes it took to listen to it entirely, you’d have to note the time where you stopped and fast forward to that spot on a subsequent listening. Mr. Hodges was an excellent narrator –reading neither too fast or too slow and enunciating quite well. I never had trouble understanding him (middle aged hearing). The only weak point was his reading of dialogue. At one point my son said Mr. Hodges reminded him of Data from Star Trek and looking back I can see his point. Mr. Henty wrote with very few contractions so everyone’s words seemed more formal. There were also times (like when the protagonist was confronting an evil overseer whipping a slave) that Mr. Hodges didn’t seem to emote as much as we might have liked. Part of that could be the written words themselves—we’re not likely to use the word “shan’t” especially when we’re upset, but as a narrator he didn’t have a choice in what to say.
On the whole, the story grew on us and as we became more concerned about the characters and their fate we focused less and less on whether Mr. Hodges had enough feeling in his narration. And let’s be clear this is an audiobook—no background music, no sound effects. We follow the main character through several famous Civil War battles: Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville as well as his capture and escape. There are a fair number of chapters that deal with exploits away from the war too (helping a fugitive slave and retrieving that slave’s kidnapped wife).
Along with listening to the story, we had study guide vocabulary to define and questions for each chapter. The vocabulary was most helpful. It’s more noticeable when your reading a page and stumble across an unknown word than when you’re listening to narration. We worked on the words before listening and then tried to see if we could catch them being read.
The questions could cover anything from listening retention (e.g. How does Vincent bring Wildfire under submission?) to vocabulary (e.g. What does secede mean?) to history (e.g. What is the Merrimac, and what about it is very new to naval warfare?). While we did try to answer the questions (some requiring outside research), we did not do the activities which could be a creative writing assignment or watching an online video. I don’t know when the PDF file was created, but I found several linked web pages were no longer available.
In this review I’m trying to focus on the product, that is the audiobook, but I feel a word or two about Mr. Henty’s work itself is in order as some people might take offense. The “N” word is mentioned several times and a character in the first chapter states:
“I consider that the slave with a fairly kind master is to the full as happy as the ordinary English laborer. He certainly does not work so hard, if he is ill he is carefully attended to, he is well fed, he has no cares or anxieties whatever, and when old and past work he has no fear of the workhouse staring him in the face…Were I to liberate all the slaves on this estate to-morrow and to send them North, I do not think that they would be in any way benefited by the change. They would still have to work for their living as they do now, and being naturally indolent and shiftless would probably fare much worse.’’ [emphasis added]
I don’t know if these sentiments are coming from the character (who was a southern slaveholder, but originally from England) or Henty himself, but it certainly warranted a pause in listening to discuss whether the slaves themselves would have agreed with these statements. And maybe that’s the goal anyway – to be able to have meaningful discussions and learn from great literature of the past.
The MP3 CD retails for $25 and the Study Guide is available for $12. You can listen to a sample chapter on Mr. Hodges’ website before purchasing. The audiobooks are not recommended for children under 8. The study guide was created by a teacher who has worked with K-6 grade kids, and I would lean towards the upper end of that range before using it.