Sunday, January 5, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts

Happy New Year! What a wonderful Christmas Holiday I’ve had. My family and I went to England! We spent a week in London (with a couple train excursions to sight-see) and then a few days in Bath (renting a car to see Stonehenge and Old Sarum.) I got to see places I’ve wanted to see forever- like Canterbury Cathedral. We went to Battle. We saw Jane Austen’s house and the Jane Austen Center. It was wonderful. I might post some pictures once I get them off the camera and organized.

The plane ride was long- good thing. My historical fiction book club has chosen Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts for our next meeting. This doorstop is 836 pages and is rather a slow read, so I needed the trans-Atlantic flight to get through it.

There are at least two sides to every conflict. Oliver Wiswell is the story of the American Revolution told from the point of view of a loyalist. It was published in 1940, and the author received a special Pulitzer Prize citation in 1957 for his historical fiction so it’s a classic book. As a general rule, detailed, accurate historical fiction is my favorite type of novel. But I had trouble getting in to Oliver Wiswell.

The book begins with Oliver as a young man returning to his Massachusetts home to visit his father, a well-respected lawyer, who has recently suffered a stroke. On the way, he comes across a mob of rebels burning a farm and tarring and feathering a man they discovered on the premises-- Thomas Buell, a printer, inventor, man of many skills, whose printing press happened to be on the site. Wiswell rescues Buell and brings him to his father’s home, thus saving his life, and from then on Buell does not leave Wiswell’s side, not for long anyway. The ingenuous but rather coarse Buell proves invaluable to highbrow Wiswell.

The rebels, stirred up by Sam Adams and John Hancock, have been making life miserable for honest, loyal Americans for a good while. But things are about to get worse. Oliver Wiswell’s neighbors, the Leightons, have been good friends all his life. He is best friends with one of the brothers and in love with the sister, Sally. Unfortunately, the Leightons are patriots. Word has gotten out that Buell is in the Wiswell home, and rebels come to get Buell and to drive out the Wiswells. Sally warns Oliver just in time and they are able to make an escape, but he must leave Sally behind.

The book follows the fate of loyalists. First, they collect in Boston. When Boston falls, they flee to New York. During the course of the war, it seems the bulk of Americans are loyalists or, if not outright supporters of the British, are against the rebels but are too afraid to say so. The rebels, though a small minority, are bullies who terrify the population into submission.

Wiswell does not fight against his fellow countrymen but he does spy for the British army, first in America and then in England and France. Unfortunately, the British higher-ups refuse to believe or act upon any of the intelligence he brings them. Fed up, he returns to America where he continues his information gathering and does a little fighting, all to no effect. (The rebels win.)

Wiswell meets the most famous people of the day. He manages to be present at quite a few of the most important events. For this reason, the book is interesting and informative if a bit farfetched. But I found that its lack of subtlety in its bias towards the loyalists made it read more like propaganda than an enjoyable novel. The loyalists are too unbelievably GOOD GUYS: brave, honest, morally unimpeachable, intelligent, gentlemanly, upstanding all around, and the rebels are LOUTS: uneducated, gullible, greedy, violent, brutish and untrustworthy. The rebel leaders are self interested liars and cheats. They start the revolution not for high ideals like liberty, etc., but out of spite towards England and in order to get out of paying debts owed to the Crown. For these personal and mercenary reasons, they are willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands. As for the British, they are corrupt and/or incompetent. The rebels are so cowardly and such poor soldiers, so badly commanded, that they never could have won the war. The British lost it by being completely inept. They lost it, it seems, by not listening to the advice of Oliver Wiswell. The loyalists would have won if they had been allowed to fight under American loyalist commanders from the get-go. The loyalists were pretty much perfect in every way. These assertions are repeated and demonstrated over and over and over again without any variation. Except at the end, one of the rebels does come around and admit that the rebel cause was misguided and its leaders were corrupt, so he wasn’t quite as much of a goon as the others, but he was a Leighton.

I prefer books that are a bit more nuanced. Nevertheless, I do feel that I’ve learned more American history and that’s time well spent!

This is my first historical novel completed in 2014 so I’m jumping right in to the Historical Fiction Challenge, hosted by Historical Tapestry.

No comments:

Post a Comment