Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Palatable History Through Fiction

Book Review of "The Fort" by Bernard Cornwell

As you know I enjoy a good historical fiction. The closer the plot is to the historical record the better. One of the books that really turned me on to history years ago was the Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (the greatest historical fiction book of all time, in my humble opinion) and I still run out and pay full price for hard cover as soon as anything by Jeff Shaara is released. I was pleasantly surprised when one of my holiday reads, The Fort by Bernard Cornwell, turned out to be factual historical fiction, a really exciting tale well told and with only minor exceptions, an accurate historical narrative.

Bernard Cornwell is a British author most well known (to me anyway) for his immensely popular Richard Sharpe series about the Napoleonic Wars. He has also written series in the foreground of post-Roman Briton, the Hundred Years War, and Ninth Century England. Occasionally he does venture into American history. I've read a couple of Cornwell's books previously. Namely "Rebel," the first is a series about the Civil War, and "Redcoat" that is set in the American Revolution. Both books were enjoyable reads, but were only a fiction story set in the period. I found a hardback copy of "The Fort" at my library's used book sale recently. I thought it would be the same as the other Cornwell novels - certainly worth the $1 I paid for it - and would make a good Christmas vacation book. I was wrong.

A narrative of the American Revolution, "The Fort" turned out to be Shaara-esque historical fiction. The story is a retelling of the Penobscot Expedition of 1779, where Massachusetts militia and naval vessels sailed to the Penobscot River in (present day) Maine to expel British forces who had recently arrived there to construct a fort and establish a base for naval operations. Upon arrival the Americans outnumbered the British defenders in their woefully unfinished fort and had the initiative. However, the initiative is lost through a series of incompetent decisions on the part of the American militia commander, and lack of action on the part of both him and the American naval commander, born of stubborn pride. The British forces, led by a professional soldier, are able to hold out for weeks until rescue arrives in the form of British warships dispatched from New York. The entire American fleet is lost and the adventure is arguably the worst American naval disaster until Pearl Harbor. In case that isn't interesting enough, the American artillery is commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel of militia by the name of Paul Revere. In this novel as in real life, Revere's performance on this operation does not exactly make his country proud or live up to the reputation that is evolved by Longfellow' poem.

Cornwell provides a section of historical notes at the end of the novel that provides the background of the Penobscot Expedition. He also points out the few places where he "took artistic license" to advance the story. The main departures being how many times the Americans tried to lure the British out of their fortifications in small numbers in order to ambush them, and who was present at a truce meeting to inquire about a wounded and captured officer. 

I assume that using a factual plot line from history is new, or certainly seldom used vehicle for Cornwell. That's not to say that his other books are not well researched, I believe they are. I'm saying that he is good at choosing, researching, then re-telling a historical narrative. I enjoyed this book and I learned about an event in our country's history that I dare claim has been down played? This book is getting the best recommendation I can give a novel: I'm sending it to my dad to read. 

I thought the "characters" in this novel were well developed and the book itself was fast paced. Unfortunately, the most disappointing thing about "The Fort" for me was reading the reaction to the book of the one and two-star reviews on Amazon. I wonder how a person can be critical of the plot and characters of a story that is true? I hope Mr. Cornwell writes more books like this. "The Fort" is a keeper, and it is going on the shelf right next to my collection of Shaara novels. ;-)

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