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Books: The boys' own historian

Books | A Victorian literary phenomenon returned to bookshelves

Issue: "Children of Chernobyl," April 13, 1996

When I was growing up, the great historical epics of G.A. Henty were already becoming difficult to find. But whenever I ran across one in our local library I quickly checked it out, rushed home, and read it-usually without putting it down. In the years since, I have haunted dusty antiquarian book shops in an effort to collect as many of these gems as possible. Now though, thanks to the wise editors at Preston/Speed-a small independent publisher in Mill Hall, Pa.-the books are returning to print for the edification and education of a whole new generation.

Often called "the boys' own historian" or "the prince of the story-tellers," Mr. Henty was a Victorian literary phenomenon whose 144 books and myriad short stories have long enthralled adults and children alike. His fiercely accurate narratives range across the whole spectrum of human achievement, highlighting the greatest characters and the most decisive moments in history. Other writers have succeeded admirably in capturing a single culture or era-Mary Renault in ancient Greece, Ellis Peters in medieval England, Walter Scott in Jacobite Scotland, Cecelia Holland in Teutonic Europe, or Andrew Lytle in the ante-bellum South-but Mr. Henty was equally adept at telling the story of the Crimean War as of the Peloponnesian War, of the Franco-Prussian conflict as of the Norman conquest, of the adventures of the Conquistadors as of the trials of the Pharaohs. Apparently, his virtuosity knew no bounds. Indeed, the first three of these beautifully bound reprints give ample evidence of his remarkable range.

In Freedom's Cause is Mr. Henty's inspiring story of the struggle for Scottish independence during the days of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Picking up where the film Braveheart leaves off, it is a tale of invigorating valor. But it is also a tale of surprising historical profundity. There is very little of the glitz and glamor of Hollywood here; instead, it is an accurate depiction of amazing events and larger-than-life characters that have sadly passed into the ephemeral mists of myth.

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The Dragon and the Raven is a dramatic rendering of the great invasions of the Danes during the days of King Alfred. With dramatic scenes of brutal hand-to-hand combat, raging storms at sea, and the struggle to maintain the stability of a quiet village life and a mature Christian forbearance, the book is an enthralling glimpse into a pivotal era in the preservation of Western Civilization. It is also a marvelous introduction to one of history's greatest heroes; King Alfred was a renaissance man many centuries before the supposed advent of renaissance men.

For the Temple is an account of the fall of Jerusalem to the legions of Rome under the command of Titus. I have to confess that the official histories of Josephus have always been a bit difficult to plow through, but here Mr. Henty makes Josephus come to life as never before. The sieges of Jotapata, Gamala, and Jerusalem are transformed into page-turning dramas of the highest order.

These action-packed stories of courage, tenacity, and providential faithfulness left me as breathless and enthused re-reading them as an adult as they did some 30 years ago. I can hardly wait for the next installments of this remarkable literary legacy.

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