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Blood Traitors is the tale of two sisters, Katy and Anna, born in the Palatine. (The cover blurb labels it a "true story," because the women were ancestors of one of the authors, but no doubt this claim requires a grain or two of salt.) Along with their families and a good proportion of their village they set out for the colonies in search of a new and better life. Originally, their destination was to be Nova Scotia, but after a progression of difficulties they end up arriving in the back country of South Carolina in 1765.
Their new life proves to be a pattern of endless, mind-numbing suffering. While struggling to survive the elements, poisonous snakes, deadly fevers, and the Regulator War, they gradually drift apart, both personally and politically. When rebels force the colonies into open war, Katy remains firmly loyal to the established government. Her sister, however, has become so blinded by bitterness and hatred -- towards the government, the harshness of the life they've led, and her own neighbors -- that she sides with the rebels. Through their lives and those of the other German settlers who arrived with them, the authors paint a vivid and horrifying picture of the madness of civil war sweeping through the Carolinas.
The main body of the tale is told in flashback, with its "present" being 1813, when a funeral reunites the two sisters for the first time since Katy and her family were driven into exile at the end of the Revolution. Now ancient and lonely, the two women are still trapped by the enmity and unforgiving anger which tore their family apart, and only slowly begin to unbend a little as their minds drift back along trails of shared memory.
This is one of the most disappointing books in my review list because -- unlike so many others -- it really could have been excellent. It could have been brilliant. The authors pay tribute to Oliver Wiswell, and they prefer history to politically correct myth. If that history suffers a subset of the customary problems, it is glaringly obvious that it can be attributed to the available source material and not to the writers' intent. Even taking into account a generic Bloody Ban, a 19th century interpretation of Lord Rawdon, and similar gaffs, this is one of the most accurate portraits of the first American civil war that I've seen.
The disappointment arrives via a different set of faults, relating not to the history but the storytelling. Or, more accurately, the lack of same. The writing style is an uncomfortable hybrid between novelization and historical narrative, and ends up doing justice to neither. This isn't so much a novel as a point-form overview of events glued together by a series of implausible conversations. Many of its "scenes" are less than a page in length, and barely deserve the designation. The time line has an odd tendency to jump forward at the beginning of a chapter, then go back and explain how it arrived there. The characters may be based on people who really lived, but within these pages they are reduced to ciphers who spend so much time reflecting upon the events around them that they have no time to become people. (Quite honestly, I got to the end of the book without being able to recall which of the sisters was which, and had to double-check before I started the review.) And as one newspaper reviewer noted, the dialogue is unbelievably off-key for the individuals who are supposedly saying it:
The Palatines, unlettered peasants with halting English, are made to say things like: '...the flood hadn't yet flattened into that sinister, glass-smooth water-race that meant the great falls were imminent, a plunge into the raging maelstrom below.'1
In addition to all this, the book is just so unremittingly and unrepentantly grim that it is downright painful to read. It really does capture the worst and harshest elements of life in the 18th century in general and the back country in particular. In nasty, gory detail. For more than three hundred pages. There's virtually nothing to provide balance. Nothing to give both the reader and the characters a break, a rest or a change in tone. Given the human ability to find moments of joy and relaxation in even the worst situations, a strong writer could have discovered ways to weave in a wider range of events and emotions without losing the striking accuracy of the message. Doing so would have made the book both richer and more likely to keep a reader turning the pages.
When I asked Gretchen if she'd read this -- it has enough connection with Loyalist history to have interested her -- she sent me two printed reviews, both of them suffused with the same sort of "dammit, I want to recommend this so badly for its potential, but I honestly can't" frustration. One of them got as far as saying, "Allow the stylistic excesses and you will still get a rousing history lesson."2 That's certainly true, but it's hard advice to follow. This book could have been good. Heck, it could've been great. Unfortunately, it needs someone to rewrite it before it'll get within a country mile of either.
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1  Peter Martin, "Solid research demythologizes revolution", book review in the Ottawa Citizen, 29 December 1996. [ back ]
2  Ibid. The second review is Dennis Duffy, "Loyalist Docudrama" in Books in Canada, March 1998. [ back ]
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