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Revolutionary War Fiction Holds Down 'The Fort'

Oct 14, 2010

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Bernard Cornwell

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When you learned about Bunker Hill and Trenton and Yorktown in your 11th grade American history class, you probably didn't hear about the Penobscot Expedition. At least I didn't, and now I know why.

The short version of this little-known chapter in the American Revolution is that the British sent a force of soldiers and ships in the summer of 1779 to occupy Penobscot Bay in what was then Massachusetts (now Maine) and build a fort there. And the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, without much consultation with Gen. George Washington and the Continental Army, sent a force of ships and men to kick them out. Among the officers in that force was Lt. Col. Paul Revere — yes, that Paul Revere. By the time it was over, well, let's just say that things didn't go so well for Team USA and one of its star players.

Fortunately, we have Bernard Cornwell to give us the long version, in his new novel, The Fort.

Cornwell is one of the most popular and prolific historical novelists writing today, and he is best and deservedly known for his series of novels featuring Richard Sharpe, an officer in the British Army during the Duke of Wellington's famous Peninsular campaign against Napoleon. I came across these books in the 1980s and got hooked.

Sharpe was one of the liveliest series characters out there, a flintlock-era version of Jack Reacher, the loner protagonist of British thriller writer Jim Grant (aka Lee Child). In more than 20 books, Sharpe fought Napoleon's Army across Spain and into France, at the same time fighting his way up through the ranks of the British officer corps. In recent years, Cornwell has branched out, going back in time as far as the Middle Ages and into contemporary thrillers as well. He's enjoyed growing commercial success and, from my perspective anyway, somewhat mixed literary success.

There's nothing fancy or complex, and often little ambiguity, in his books, but Cornwell at his best is a fine storyteller with a flair for describing battles and individual combat in a way that's exciting and easy to follow. He weaves the fictional and the factual together so you can hardly tell where the novel stops and the history lesson begins.

In The Fort, he has stuck closely to the events and characters history dealt him, and the result is one of his most successful books. In most novels of this kind the writer is not so much telling stories as re-telling them, with well-known figures like Napoleon or Stonewall Jackson, and the action that takes place on the familiar terrain of Gettysburg or Waterloo or Pearl Harbor. In this case, I had the rare pleasure of really not knowing how things were going to turn out.

Cornwell also gets to introduce a cast of relative unknowns, and he fills in the blanks in the historical record to create portraits more richly drawn and complex than is his norm. On both sides, redcoat and patriot, he finds men who are flawed, frightened and, in a couple of cases, ultimately heroic. And he delights in giving us a Paul Revere vastly different than the Son of Liberty we think we know from "Listen my children and you shall hear ..."

The repeated failures of the colonial forces and the shortcomings of their commanders (notably Revere) provide a sense of anxiety and of an impending train wreck that makes it hard to put this book down. Lives get thrown away and blown opportunities pile up. It's awful, but you just can't look away. Cornwell adds to the tension and the sense of place and time by using, at the beginning of each chapter, excerpts from actual historical documents written during and after the expedition. The novel is both an exciting account of a mostly forgotten event and a thoughtful exploration of the absurdity and futility of war.

Cornwell is less successful when he strays from the documentary path: There's a perfunctory subplot involving a gorgeous colonial babe trapped behind the British lines and a brother who hooks up with the rebels. But, all in all, this book succeeds as both fiction and history, a lesson to rival anything I learned back in the 11th grade.

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