Thursday, February 06, 2003


"The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill", John Trumbull.

Judging by the shelves in the US History sections at Borders, Barnes&Noble and just about every place else, the conflicts that have the strongest hold on American history buffs are the Civil War and World War II. While I share the fascination with WWII, I've never been much interested in the Civil War. Not for any real reason, mind you; it actually is an interesting part of our history, and the issues that sparked that war still resonate today, almost a century and a half after that war's fighting. But along with WWII, the conflict from American history that has most interested me over the years is our first conflict, in which the United States underwent its painful, violent birth: the American Revolution. Perhaps it is the tale of an oppressed group of colonies banding together and throwing aside their oppressors that appeals to me; I have always found something of a heroic nature about the Revolution, whereas the Civil War is instead a terribly sad story. I don't know, really -- I've just always found the exploits of George Washington and John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among so many others, particularly compelling.

Along those lines, I just finished reading Jeff Shaara's novel of the American Revolution, Rise to Rebellion. The first volume of a duology (the second of which, The Glorious Cause, has just been released), Rise to Rebellion tells the story leading up to, and into the Revolution. He begins with the Boston Massacre, and as one might expect the most famous and folkloric events of the 1770s are here: the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's midnight ride, Lexington and Concord, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Shaara does an excellent job here of showing how these much-celebrated events fit into the historical tableau of the Revolution. I'm not qualified to assess Shaara's degree of accuracy here, but it seems to me that he's probably given a good sense of the buildup to, and breakout of, the war.

The novel is one of the "shifting viewpoint" novels that seem to be very popular these days, wherein each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character. The main ones here are Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Gage (the British general charged with containing the rebellion). There are others along the way who get the focus, but those are the main ones. This being the case, Shaara does a masterful job of conveying what Franklin and Adams were doing before the revolution, what their lives were like, and how their thoughts are driven inexorably toward the concept of independence. Gage, too, is handled well, and it is perhaps the novel's greatest strength that it depicts how the stubbornness of the British created many of the problems that drove the colonists to revolt. But still, Gage does not come off as a villain or an unbending Tory -- he is a complex man who is given an impossible task. Washington comes off less successfully; he doesn't show up until the Continental Congress, so I didn't get as fine a sense of the man who was swept into revolution as we do with Adams and Franklin. But I did get a strong sense of his ability as a commander.

The greatest weakness in Rise to Rebellion is in its women. They are strictly supporting players in Shaara's drama, to whom the men return when they are not planning a break with England. I would have liked to have seen how the Revolution really affected the women -- how they felt about a break with England, how they felt about war, how they supported the colonial effort in their own ways. I'm not entirely sure how Shaara could have addressed this problem, given the viewpoint structure he has chosen for his novel, short of including entire chapters from the viewpoints of various women -- Abigail Adams, perhaps -- and thus increasing the page-count. But the book reads quickly as is, which is no mean feat for a 550-page novel; I have a feeling a 650-page novel including some material from the standpoint of the women would not have been beyond Shaara's considerable skill.

I further found interesting Shaara's decision to actually tell his story from the viewpoints of the "major players" in the Revolution. He took a considerable risk in attempting to make into flesh-and-blood some of the most beloved personages in American history; a less daring writer might have created a fictional character or set of characters to interject into the historical proceedings. Of course, that's been done before -- Johnny Tremain, the John Jakes novels, the movie The Patriot -- so Shaara has, at least to my knowledge, done something fairly unique here. Rise to Rebellion is an excellent book. I highly recommend it.

(My recent resurgence in my usually-latent interest in the Revolution was probably brought on, at least in part, by my daughter's fascination with the PBS show Liberty's Kids, about a trio of youngsters who work for Benjamin Franklin's newspaper during the Revolutionary War. It's not really geared toward the 4-year-old set, but she loves it.)

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