Revolutionary War backdrop for historical fiction
This year marks the 230th anniversary of the end of the Revolutionary War. Because the timing was right, and I always love learning new things when I read a good book, I decided to pick up some historical fiction this week.
On the best-seller lists right now is the nonfiction book "Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution" by popular author Nathaniel Philbrick.
But because it's summer, and I love escaping into novels while at the pool, I chose instead to pick up some fictional accounts of this time period. A sampling:
— Author Howard Fast is known for historical novels like "The Immigrants" and "April Morning." In "Seven Days In June," we are treated to a firsthand account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, paired with the character development we've come to expect from this prolific author.
Dr. Evan Feversham is the central figure in this one, a British surgeon who had fled to America after serving in three bloody European wars. He joins a ragtag group of rebels who must stand up to the formidable and menacing British army. Gripping drama, courage and conviction keep the story moving at a quick pace.
Interestingly, the author was a member of the American Communist party from 1943 to '56, and he served a prison term for not cooperating with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He changed his mind down the road, but the man does know how to write an action-packed historical fiction novel.
— During the same time and place, but with a much different treatment, is "The Schoolmaster's Daughter" by John Smolens. With engaging writing and strong description, we learn about teenager Abigail Lovell.
While her teacher father is a loyalist to the Crown, Abigail and her brothers use patriot sympathies and espionage to debilitate the British forces in Boston. Acting as a courier, Abigail eludes the British and smuggles money, supplies and notes to the rebels at Lexington and Concord.
The characters and their divided families are acutely described, and tensions ride high when a British soldier is found murdered and suspicion falls toward Abigail. With her brothers away fighting for the patriots, her volatile trial begins amid Paul Revere's famous ride. Does anyone remember reading "Johnny Tremain" in school? This follows along those lines — but with a female protagonist and detailed descriptions of battle.
— In "Brave Enemies" by Robert Morgan, we are faced with chaos in the Carolinas in 1781. The author is also a poet, and the book is beautifully written, with passages of description that led me to close my eyes and savor the narrative for a moment before moving on.
Two viewpoints alternate chapters in the telling of the Revolutionary War as fought in the lower Appalachian area of the Carolinas and Georgia.
Josie is 16 years old and lives a hard life with a mother who is ill and an abusive stepfather. After an incident at home, Josie murders the man, cuts off her hair and steals his clothes to disguise herself as a boy for her escape.
Going by the name of Joseph, she wanders cold and hungry through the woods and stumbles upon a church. Although not familiar with the ways of the Bible and religion, she accepts a young preacher's invitation to help his ministry.
While evading both rebels and loyalists, the two share their days and eventually Josie's deception is discovered. Overwhelmed with guilt for having shared his home with a woman, the reverend marries Josie. Soon thereafter, he is kidnapped by British soldiers, and Josie once again goes undercover as a boy to join the troops and find her husband.
The battle scenes are both horrifically and exquisitely written in lush detail and profound sensitivity, ending in the infamous Battle of Cowpens.
— Lastly, "The Fort" by prolific and well-regarded historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell recaptures the turmoil of a 1779 Patriot offensive on Maine's Penobscot River. Carefully researched and focusing on the much ignored truths of inexperienced colonial troops fighting the intimidating British soldiers, the story involves the expedition of ships and men to Penobscot Bay, in what was then Massachusetts.
The British were building a fort in what was to be a colony called "New Ireland." The Massachusetts army decided to fight this undertaking and sent the largest ship expedition of the Revolutionary War, and some say it was the biggest naval defeat until Pearl Harbor.
In a detailed telling, the patriots lost the battle due to incompetent leadership, muddled instructions and heavy British artillery fighting. The surviving rebels then were forced to flee over land without sufficient food or ammunition. The commodore in charge was declared to be responsible for the embarrassment and was court-martialed, found guilty and dismissed from the military.
Interestingly, Revere was in charge of the artillery in this battle and was accused of disobedience and cowardice in the Battle of Penobscot Bay.
Although all of these books deal with some aspect of the Revolutionary War, they each have a distinct difference in the description and treatment of the main characters and their relation to the events of the time. I know I learned a lot — which to me is always a good sign of time well spent.
This week, I will put out my flag with a new understanding of our history.
Kelly Strom is the collection manager at the Champaign Public Library. She orders books, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks and CDs.