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[New York: Ballantine Books, 2002]
My opinion of this weighty novel is somewhat the same as I have of Graves' Sergeant Lamb stories. For a reader who finds it difficult to get interested in non-fiction, it is a fairly painless way to absorb a general overview of the war from beginning to end. Its history is far from flawless, and Shaara has some peculiar ideas about what events are important enough to happen on screen, but it is as good as some of the books being sold on the non-fiction shelves. The casual reader might arrive at roughly the same level of knowledge via either route.
As drama, it's pretty uninspired. Most of the time, it reads like a text book with conversations, though occasionally it does provide a scene with some life to it. The vivid description of the sheer misery of the march from Head of Elk in relentless rain stood out above the rest. There's a nice scene between Cornwallis and Knyphausen, and an amusing one that has Washington "fishing" from horseback in the spring at Valley Forge, to the great confusion of his staff. But generally the events of the Revolution are described in a straightforward, linear, and somewhat mechanical fashion. If Shaara ever encountered the old maxim for authors, "show your readers, don't tell them," it didn't influence his style.
Events are shown primarily in round-robin fashion from the perspectives of Washington, Franklin, Greene and Cornwallis. Occasionally Shaara will switch into the heads of Howe, Von Steuben or someone else to fill in a gap. I have no opinion on how well he handles Washington; it seemed routine to me, though a correspondent with considerably more knowledge in that area assures me it's mediocre. Franklin is played as a consummate jerk, which was a bit odd, I thought, though probably more realistic than the mythic grand old man. (He doesn't mention any of the snippets of Franklin lore which interest me, which is no great surprise since they're vastly heretical.) Greene gets rather lost in the shuffle. The most compelling portraits from that camp are Daniel Morgan and Lafayette. The latter is entirely charming, though, most peculiarly, Shaara is convinced he used "Marie" from among his surfeit of Christian names, perhaps simply because it came first in the list. I seem to recall that he used "Gilbert," though I wouldn't swear to it -- but definitely not "Marie!" (And I know there's got to be some sort of "A Boy Named Marie" joke in there, sung to the tune of that old Johnny Cash song, but I can't quite get it to take form...)
The presentation of Cornwallis is reasonable for a good percentage of the time, and that simple fact earns Shaara many points for attempting to give him an equal voice with the others. It doesn't always work, sometimes it fails utterly -- the Earl has these peculiar moments when he starts thinking like a 21st century American -- but even so it's vastly better than what appears in most of the other books I've reviewed. Once in a while, he even breathes a bit of life into the character -- for instance, throwing in a frustrated aside from Cornwallis to Alexander Leslie, wanting to know what the devil a "throg's neck" might be. (Okay, it's not a Great Humorous Moment in Fiction -- except when compared with the rest of the book!)
When he gets into the secondary characters, British at least, things fall apart. I'd be curious to know if his second-stringers on the rebel side are better, but I don't know the ones Shaara used well enough to judge. Though the fact that he calls Harry Lee's memoirs "one of the finest firsthand accounts produced during this era" ought to be enough to worry anyone. (It could explain so much.)
Anyway, of the Brits, his version of Sandy Leslie suggests he didn't bother to learn anything about the man but his name and the spare details of where and when he participated in the war. He certainly didn't check out any comments by people who had actually met him before spinning an image of Leslie's personality which is about 180-degrees off course. John André fares even worse, being reduced to a vicious and thoroughly ludicrous caricature.
The end note for Ban Tarleton -- "what happened to him after the war" -- is 12 sentences long and contains a minimum six errors, arguably eight, so it's hardly surprising the fictional version to be found herein bears little resemblance to his real-world namesake. In his introduction, Shaara says he studied period journals and letters. While that may be true with Washington or Franklin, I'd be astounded to hear he so much as glanced at the correspondence which passed back and forth between Tarleton and Cornwallis. If he did, then I'm utterly at a loss to guess where he got this...peculiar...version of their relationship. It has nothing in common with the words actually exchanged between them or their comments about each other in other letters written during the war. (Cornwallis's opinions are surprisingly obvious even in his military correspondence. The Earl was not a man to hide his feelings.)
Still, as often happens with the really bizarre versions of Tarleton, it's actually moderately entertaining. Whatever he was smoking when he thought up the ideas, Shaara made Ban a 2.5-dimensional character, which is a full half-dimension better than average. This re-incarnation probably belongs to the same motorcycle-gang-analogy as Kantor's freaky view in Valley Forge. He's brash and egotistical (fine so far), but he's also rude as hell ("polite" has got to be one of the most common adjectives applied to the real man by his contemporaries) and downright stupid when it comes to army politics (his rapid rise through the ranks proves he was anything but stupid in that area). The smart ass spoiled brat who stages some kind of weird performance art every time he gets into the same room as Cornwallis should be courtmartialled for impersonating a Banastre Tarleton, but he's a hoot -- about equal in historical (in)accuracy with the routine "butcher" version, but definitely a rung higher on the "entertainment value" scale.
Unlike the old or obscure books I tend to come up with to review, this one is actually a bestseller, so I've been able to chat about it to a few other people. One correspondent, vastly more knowledgeable on the war than I can ever hope to become, assures me all copies of it ought to be burned as an affront to history, but I think he's being a little harsh. (There are numerous books more deserving of that fate.) Another friend is willing to give it the benefit of quite a bit of doubt, since it does make an attempt to be fair to Cornwallis -- and I agree that is certainly an admirable thing.
The others to whom I've posed the question tend to view it in much the same way I do. It's... there. Period.
[Thanks to Tracy Smith for bringing it to my attention.]
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