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History with a human face

"History with a human face" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

By the end of the book, the scene abruptly changes, and Hervey and his family find themselves posted to the Canadian frontier, facing arctic weather and hostile Indians, all under his inept commander. The ending is a heart-wrenching cliffhanger that leaves readers breathless and yearning for the next installment.

Those who come close

For another 19th-century British soldier, there is Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series, about a rifleman working his way through the ranks fighting Napoleon and other enemies of the king. No one describes actual battles with Mr. Cornwell's vividness. Usually, he spins some kind of romantic adventure for Richard Sharpe to engage in, but the center of every book is a real-world battle. His rendition of Waterloo is even better than Mr. Mallinson's, though, taken together, they give the reader a multidimensional picture of a turning point in world history.

While Mr. Mallinson's Matthew Hervey is utterly likable, Richard Sharpe is portrayed as a brutal, cynical killer. There is not much religious sensibility in Mr. Cornwell's novels. An exception might be the very latest title, Sharpe's Prey, out this year. Here, Richard Sharpe, Mr. Cornwell, and the reader all show some very real sympathy for the devout Lutherans of Copenhagen, whose city is mercilessly bombarded by the British, who are trying to steal the Danish fleet before Napoleon can get to it. The innocent, good-hearted Danes are caught in the crossfire of two mighty opposites, and for once the British do not come across as the good guys.

Of novels about American history, the father-and-son team of Michael and Jeff Shaara, in their epic Civil War trilogy (Gods and General, The Killer Angels, The Last Full Measure) do a good job of conveying the piety of men like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Joseph Chamberlain.

Jeff Shaara is currently writing about the Revolutionary War. The first volume, Rise to Rebellion, is filled with interesting detail readers probably never learned in high school, but his characterization of John Adams pales in comparison to that of John McCullough's bestselling biography-a narrative history-which shows the founder's complexity, his moral integrity, and his faith.

Another compelling treatment of American history is in the series of novels by David Nevin. Historians used to focus on the Federalist Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, and the controversies between them, as a way to understand the early days of the Republic. Today, historians are seeing that even more important are John Adams and James Madison, who opposed each other politically but were less extreme than Hamilton and Jefferson, and who actually got more things done. Both had strong marriages and influential wives, Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison, and both were men of robust moral integrity.

Mr. Nevin's series focuses on James Madison, in the issues he dealt with as Jefferson's secretary of state and in his presidency, including the War of 1812. The novels, confusingly written out of order, are Eagle's Cry, Treason, and 1812.

The saga is full of mind-boggling details about American history that deserve to be better known. Most Americans do not realize how close their fledgling country came to war with France. Napoleon actually considered occupying his territory in the Americas-that is, the land west of the Mississippi-planning to use the Western frontier as a platform for attacking the British holdings in Canada.

The nemesis of Aubrey, Hervey, and Sharpe very nearly would have been our problem. Napoleon actually sent an army for this purpose to New Orleans, but they decided first to stop at Haiti and put down the slave revolt. But the ex-slaves, with the help of tropical disease, totally destroyed the French army. Napoleon gave up his scheme and sold his holdings to the United States as the Louisiana Purchase. Although seldom mentioned in Black History Month, those rebellious slaves arguably saved American freedom and were responsible for American possession of the Western frontier.

Mr. Nevin's novels also show that talk of secession was not only particular to the South in the 1860s. Far earlier, New York and New England were threatening to secede from the Union. And then, the Western territories also threatened to secede. Behind both intrigues was Aaron Burr, Jefferson's vice president. Burr tried to steal the presidency, killed the far better man Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and then tried to set himself up as "Napoleon of the West"-there is that nemesis again-by leading the West out of the Union and conquering Mexico.

After all of these crises, with Madison finally in the presidency, came war with England, which brought with it defeat after defeat, including the sacking of Washington, D.C., and the burning of the White House. But the power of the United States began to awaken when the fiery Kentuckian Andrew Jackson crushed the British in the Battle of New Orleans, a battle, ironically, that was fought after the diplomats had already made peace. The combatants just did not get the news in time.

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