A Review of Harald Johnson’s 1609

New York has always been one of my favorite states to visit and I picked up 1609 because I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the history of the place. There’s no shortage of historical fiction set in New York but I think the vast majority is set in the 19th or 20th century and I really appreciate that Harold Johnson tried a different tack by setting his story firmly in the early 17th century. Moreover, the story is told largely from the perspective of Amerindian characters which appealed to me on a narrative level as well as a historical level.

The protagonist of the story is Dancing Fish and we learn that early on that he is no stranger to tragedy. He loses his parents when he is just a child and constantly grapples with the guilt that comes with being a lone survivor. Nonetheless, he is fortunate to be accepted by the Manahate people and cares deeply about the well-being of his adopted family.

Consequently, the arrival of Captain Hudson and his crew, on an island now known as Manhattan, piques Dancing Fish’s interest. Captain Hudson and his men speak languages none of the Manahate have ever heard of and travel in ships unlike any they have ever seen. Determined to learn more about these strange people, Dancing Fish agrees to accompany them on a journey upriver.

After all, doing so will help him learn more about the inland nations and learn more about the people who have just recently arrived in his home. What he learns distresses him greatly and he quickly realizes that Hudson and his ilk have sinister designs for his homeland. Convinced nothing can be gained by staying with Hudson, Dancing Fish abandons ship after seriously injuring one of Hudson’s crew members.

In the process, he suffers a pretty serious injury himself but I think what I found most memorable about this scene was the interaction between Hudson and Dancing Fish. Hudson is confounded that Dancing Fish would want to abandon his company and entices him to return by telling him “our world is the future.” Hudson’s appeal falls on deaf ears and Dancing Fish responds by letting him know “I see only how you look to our land, to our animals, even to us. We are only for your using. This is not the way to be brothers in peace.”

In some respects, the characters talk past each other during this exchange and I think that’s part of what makes this scene powerful. Neither character can deny the charges made, Dancing Fish understands the Manahate are too few in number to successfully oppose the Dutch East India company and Hudson understands that he is more invader than savior, but neither want to admit this truth. Ultimately, they both seem to realize that dialogue is futile so long as their world views cannot be reconciled and relations between the Manahate and the Dutch East India company become irreparably strained. 

Owing to the emotional stakes of this scene, I imagine it is one that most readers will remember long after they finish the book. Having said that, I think there are some scenes that readers will remember for the wrong reason. The scene where Willow and High Limb first become intimate did not sit right with me, it made little sense from a character standpoint and validates a really awful way of thinking, and I wish the scene had been nixed since it has little importance to the larger story. For that matter, I do also wish 1609 had been a bit longer and I am glad the omnibus version combines the sequels because I think some of the sequels were too short to stand on their own. In any case, I enjoyed 1609 quite a bit and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of European colonization of the Northeast or Amerindian history.

Take a chance on the new Chancellorsville novel

Ralph Peters is one of my favorite historical fiction authors still writing today. While I disagree with many of his political positions and think he has a bit too much sympathy for the Confederates, I have a great deal of respect for his writing abilities and his research process. I have read all of his Civil War novels, except for Hell or Richmond, and I think Darkness at Chancellorsville will probably be remembered as his best work. 

Like all of his Civil War novels, Darkness at Chancellorsville is a multiple protagonist novel that explores the conflict from the perspective of Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers. Some of these characters are featured in his other novels—Meade, Sickles, and Lee for example—but some characters—like Jackson, Howard, and Schultz—have never appeared in Peters’ work. For the most part, the characters are engaging and lively and I can’t think of any character POV that I found disagreeable. Lest anybody accuse me of fanboy adulation, I should note I’m not a fan of all the characters included in the Battle Hymn Cycle. Neither Cobb nor Grant’s formerly enslaved aide brought much to the table, just my opinion though, and I probably would not have liked Darkness at Chancellorsville as much had these characters been included.

In terms of newcomers, Schurz’ character stuck with me the most. Peters’ has a penchant for including the POVs of fiery abolitionists in his novels and Schurz definitely fits the mold. Nonetheless, I think Schurz’ character was, in many respects, an improvement on many of those other characters. Some of this deals with Schurz’ backstory. A German revolutionary, Schurz saw firsthand how the 1848 revolutions of Europe failed and understands that kind sentiments are not enough to change the world. Whereas others might give in to bitterness and regret, Schurz resolves to fight on and travels to the United States to aid the abolitionist cause. Backstory aside, I think Schurz’ POV stands out because Peters’ does such a great job of capturing his frustration. Schurz and many of his fellow officers suspect that the Confederates are attempting a flank and bring warning to their superiors. His superiors refuse to take heed of his advice, or any advice coming from the “German quarter,” and Schurz is essentially forbidden from making proper preparations. Ultimately, Schurz’ warning proves correct and Jackson’s flanking maneuver almost destroys the Union army. 

When it comes to recurring characters, Sickles’ POV packed the most punch for me. I think almost anyone who has read Cain at Gettysburg, or just knows a decent amount about the Gettysburg battle, would not be inclined to extend Sickles a great of respect and I was surprised by Peters’ portrayal of Sickles. While it wasn’t positive per se, I think Peters makes it clear that Sickles did acquit himself relatively well in the Battle of Chancellorsville and gave good insight into Sickles’ thinking. Hooker made a serious error by ordering Sickles’ to abandon the high ground, essentially ceding the best artillery position to the Confederate forces without a fight, and Sickles’ contempt toward Hooker’s decision is very easy to understand.

The information goes a long way towards explaining Sickles’ actions in the Battle of Gettysburg and makes his tragic decision to disobey Meade’s order much more understandable. I doubt any agent or editor encouraged Peters to include Sickles’ POV in Darkness at Chancellorsville but I am glad he did as I think it will encourage readers to take a more holistic view of historical figures. To judge Sherman solely by his worst performance in battle, say Shiloh, would be unfair and the same holds true for Sickles. Sickles was by no means a battlefield genius but it’s very likely he understood that Hooker’s decision to cede Hazel Grove was a serious tactical error.

Unfortunately for the Union, it was just one of Hooker’s many tactical blunders. If we are to judge Hooker solely by this one battle, his command of the Army of the Potomac was an absolute disaster. Like McClellan, Hooker deserves a great deal of credit for reorganizing the army and improving morale. He had a great deal of talent for logistics but when it came to fighting, Hooker and McClellan both proved far too timid. Worse yet, Hooker was extremely rigid when it came to battle strategy. This made for a terrible combination as Hooker proved unwilling to go on the offense when Lee was vulnerable and discouraged his subordinates from adequately preparing for flanking attacks. As a result, the Union played a poor offense and a poor defense in the battle. Fortunately, the Union army was not completely destroyed in the Battle of Chancellorsville and Lincoln relieved Hooker of command a short time later, allowing the far-more competent Meade to face off against Lee in Gettysburg.

Peters’ Cain at Gettysburg gives more insight into this battle but for readers who are mainly interested in learning about the Battle of Chancellorsville, I would highly recommend Darkness at Chancellorsville. It is an excellent read and extremely informative, and I highly recommend it Civil War buffs as well as historical fiction enthusiasts. 

Seven Reasons to Read Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

I majored in history at George Washington University and had to read a number of history texts for my studies. Some of them were incredibly dry, like Death Valley dry, and rather forgettable but some of those texts hold an honored place on my bookshelf to this day. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest was definitely the latter.

There’s quite a bit I like about this book, but what I really enjoy about this book is the engaging prose. Matthew Restall is extremely well-versed on matters related to the Spanish invasion of the Americas, as one would expect for the Director of Latin American studies at Penn State University, but he never comes across as pedantic or self-absorbed in his writing. Rather, he comes across as conversational and earnest and I imagine there are a great many readers who could appreciate this. But putting aside Restall’s talent for wordplay, I think readers will also be able to appreciate the historical argument that undergirds Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest.

The answer will probably differ from person to person, but I personally believe the reason we study history is to challenge our assumptions and broaden our horizons. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is a great resource in this regard and I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about the European colonization of the Americas, a monumental event that reshaped the global balance of power for centuries to come, or anyone interested in learning more about the way that history is remembered to consult this book. My strong suspicion is that readers who give this book a whirl will discover that the version of events they learn in school—whether it’s Cortes being perceived as a god or the idea that the locals were simply passive victims—bears little resemblance to truth.   

I have a very strong interest in the “Spanish conquest,” I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war and I am writing historical series on the subject, but I think the book will appeal to a wide variety of readers. The book explores a number of issues related to race, gender, and class that are still very much relevant today and since 2019 is the five hundred year anniversary of Cortes first landing in Mexico, I think the book is especially relevant today. But for anyone not convinced they should check out the book, I would like to offer seven reasons worth considering:

  1. It’s a good read
  2. It’s an informative read
  3. It’s an easy read
  4. It’s a short read
  5. It’s a timely read
  6. Reasons 1-5
  7. Reasons 1-6

If those reasons aren’t good enough, I suppose nothing is. In any case, happy reading everyone!

**This book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries**

Benedict Arnold and Contemporary Attitudes Toward Treason

Benedict Arnold is one of the most famous traitors in all of American history. While I doubt there is any sort of polling on the matter, his attempt to hand over control of West Point to the British has inspired countless books and made him, for a time at least, “the most reviled person in American history.” So infamous is his treachery that some of his most important battlefield victories have been almost completely forgotten by the general public. I picked up John Enson Harr’s Dark Eagle because I wanted to gain a fuller understanding of Benedict Arnold as a historical figure and I am glad I did. 

Harr’s story begins long before Arnold turns traitor. To be specific, the story starts June 18, 1776. At this time, the declaration of independence has already been issued but the war is not going well for American forces. The Patriots have just lost a key battle with the British and are being forced to make a humiliating retreat. Brigadier-general Benedict Arnold has been tasked with defending the rear guard and to the surprise of many, he excels in the role. Owing to his many military contributions to the Revolution—the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga, the tactical victory at Lake Champlain—Arnold comes to believe he has earned the respect of his countrymen. The men who serve under him certainly respect him—the men he serves under are less keen on him. Washington extends him a great deal of respect but many of the other prominent generals in the Continental Army, such as Schuyler and Gates, are more reserved in their opinion. Members of the Continental Congress are downright hostile toward him and many refuse to honor his many battlefield victories with a promotion. Following a particularly stinging rebuke from the Continental Congress, Arnold decides to resign his commission. Nonetheless, he is unable to just stand by as the British attempt to invade New England and rallies local forces to the defense of Connecticut. The British forces suffer some humiliating losses at his hands, but Arnolds suffers a serious injury that leaves him with a debilitating limp. Despite the injury, Arnold re-enlists and the Continental Congress grudgingly honors his many victories.

As far as Arnold is concerned, it is too late and too little. He has bankrupted himself to help support the Revolution and has nothing to show for it besides an empty title and meaningless accolades. His actions in the Battle of Saratoga proved instrumental in securing victory, a battle that ultimately helped turn the tide of war in the Revolutionary War, but none of that seems to matter to the Continental Congress. Determined to improve his financial situation, Arnold decides to use his position as military governor of Philadelphia to gain much-needed income. That would he use his official position to requisition items for personal profit is not especially unusual and, truth be told, it would have been surprising had he declined to do so. Washington was famous for not taking a salary during the Revolutionary War but that did not stop him from taking advantage of an expense account of epic proportions. 

All the same, some of the more radical members of the Continental Congress considered Arnold’s conduct to be nothing short of shameful and subject him to an intense campaign of harassment and intimidation. Had he a thicker skin, or perhaps just more money, Arnold may have simply gritted his teeth and pretended the many slights of the Continental Congress caused him no hurt. Instead, he opted to share his grievances with his wife. In ordinary circumstances, this would not have been all that noteworthy. His wife, however, is no ordinary woman. His wife is Peggy Shippen and she just so happens to know John Andre. Owing to Andre’s position in the British military, Arnold is in a unique position to defect to the British cause.

Convinced that he will never be given his just due if he continues to fight on behalf of the Continental Congress, Arnold turns traitor and agrees to provide Andre information regarding West Point’s defenses. The intelligence, however, never reaches British command as Andre is captured before he can deliver it. Andre is hung and Arnold escapes to British territory. Still very much in possession of his wits, Arnold expects that he will command British forces and is heartbroken to discover that high command wants little to do with him. 

Ultimately, Arnold gains little by throwing in his lot with the British and continues to be reviled to this day. I think most people who read Dark Eagle will find it difficult to muster a strong antipathy toward Benedict Arnold. I hope that readers who enjoy Dark Eagle will also reflect on why Arnold inspires so much hatred as compared to other traitors. Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson killed far more Americans and did far less for their country while they still served in uniform–why do they have military bases and elementary schools named after them when Arnold does not? To be fair, Lee and Jackson did both serve in the Mexican-American war before turning traitor but even by the most charitable estimation, all they did was help expand American territory. Benedict Arnold, on the other hand, helped America gain independence from Great Britain. Moreover, considering Lee and Jackson fought to preserve the institution of slavery, it is especially noteworthy that they are honored with so many monuments. Whether or not readers consider this worthy of contemplation, I think Dark Eagle will appeal to anyone who enjoys well-written battle sequences and military politicking.

This book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.

Amistad Book Review

I first learned about Amistad in middle school when we took time out of class to watch Spielberg’s Amistad. If I remember correctly, we only saw part of the movie but I struggle to remember exactly how much. In any case, I cannot say I found the movie particularly moving. I really enjoyed Spielberg’s historical films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s list but Amistad just did not click with me. I did, however, find the case interesting and was glad I learned more about the case in some of my American history classes in college. It was not until I read David Pesci’s Amistad, however, that I felt like I gained a truly rich understanding of this unique historical incident.

Told primarily from the perspective of Singbe, a Mende tribesman abducted and sold into slavery, the story starts with the Amistad ship en route to the Caribbean. In terms of establishing proper context, it is important to note that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was technically illegal at this time so the slavers must take great pains to avoid detection. The upside for the smugglers, however, is that demand for slaves remains skyhigh on the plantations which all but ensures a great profit, as long as they can make it to a Western seaport alive. Singbe and the other enslaved Africans have only a vague notion of what awaits them on the other side of the Atlantic, but they are not about to trust their well-being to slavers. They are at first powerless to improve their situation but Singbe comes into possession a small item which could change everything: a loose nail. He quickly takes possession of this invaluable treasure and uses it to unlock his manacles, as well as the manacles of those locked below with him. The slavers are woefully unprepared for a revolt and the abducted Africans quickly gain control of the ship.

As it turns out, they have not departed the metaphorical woods just yet. Only the slavers know how to operate the ship which begs a terrible question: can the leaders of the slave revolt trust the men who tried to sell them into slavery? They are contemptible men to be sure but Singbe, unofficial leader of the slave revolt, reasons that everyone on board hopes to make landfall so he grudgingly allows the surviving slavers to assist with navigation. It ends up being a costly mistake and the smugglers secretly navigate the ship towards a nearby slave country which just so happens to be the United States. Singbe and the other Africans are arrested by American forces and thereafter put on trial for murder. The subsequent trial comprises the bulk of the novel and features cameos from major historical figures like John Quincy Adams as well as many lesser-known historical figures.

I love a good courtroom drama as much as the next person, but it’s the final few chapters of the book I remember most. At this point in the story, the trial is concluded but the abducted Africans are totally destitute and lack the means to return to West Africa. Fortunately, an anti-slavery society has agreed to help raise funds for their return and the “Amistads” tour New England to solicit funds. The Amistads prove to be a major draw with the abolitionist crowd and as they inch closer to their explicit goal, the partnership between the anti-slavery society and the Amistads begin to fray. The former is dedicated to the abolition of slavery nationwide and believe the Amistads should play a key role in that struggle on account of their unique popularity with audiences. The Amistads, however, are concerned first and foremost with returning home and have little interest in serving as spokesmen for the abolitionist cause if it will delay their ability to return home.

Ultimately, the anti-slavery society makes good on their promise but the conflict raises interesting questions. Are the Amistads selfish for not doing more to help the abolitionist cause? Are the abolitionists selfish for asking so much of the Amistads? I don’t think there is a simple yes or no for either question and that’s what makes the ending of Amistad powerful for me. The book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries and I recommend it to anyone interested in West African history, legal history, or American history.

Coming of the Storm and the Value of Narrative Experimentation

Coming of the Storm is not exactly a typical historical novel. Set in pre-Columbian North America, the Gears’ create a world where human beings can converse with spiritual entities and gods can intervene in earthly matters. I tend to avoid all things supernatural in my writing and while I don’t avoid it in literature per se, I do think it can be distracting in a historical novel. War God: Nights of the Witch is one example of this but I am sure there are many. Nonetheless, the Gears’ thread the needle very well in Coming of the Storm and incorporate supernatural elements into the story in a way that does not distract from the larger narrative. If anything, the narrative experimentation makes Coming of the Storm all the more memorable.

The protagonist of the novel, Black Shell, has a deep respect for the power of the gods but that respect is tempered by bitterness. Black Shell used to be an upstanding member of the Chicaza tribe, known to many as the Chickasaw today, but he had to abandon that life at the behest of the Horned Serpent. Rejected by his family and his friends, he wanders from town to town with five pack dogs and a vast assortment of trade goods. Years of trading have honed his skills as a merchant and bring Pearl Hand, his eventual wife, into his life but also earns him the enmity of powerful chiefs like Irriparacoxi.

Confident in his ability to strike a bargain with anyone, Black Shell is determined to meet with the mysterious people known as the Kristianos. He knows next to nothing about them, though he has heard they speak a tongue none to known of his countrymen and have deathly pale skin, but Pearl Hand has serious reservation about meeting with the Kristianos. Moved by her pleas, Black Shell agrees to not meet with them and to simply watch them from afar instead. As it turns out, the precaution matters little as Black Shell is caught spying on the Kristianos and forced into slavery.

Thanks to Pearl Hand, Black Shell is able to escape captivity and is tempted to flee for the safety of the interior. His spirit dreams, however, give him pause and force him to consider the future that will result should de Soto establish a secure foothold. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Horned Serpent tells Black Shell why it is important to rally defenders for the fight against the Spanish, explaining that “if de Soto survives, his stories will be told across the ocean. Others will see our land for what it is: rich in soils, forests, and game. They will not come for gold, Black Shell. They will come to conquer our world.” Not only does this do a great job of establishing the dramatic stakes of the story, I think it does a great job of alluding to the environmental destruction wrought by the colonial powers in North America. The rich soils have been squandered, the forests destroyed, and the game hunted to extinction.

Moreover, the destruction was not just limited to the environment. The colonial forays of “the mighty peoples on a choking land, longing to bring their ways here” led to the deaths of millions all throughout the Americas. Needless to say, this had profound social consequences for the region and the world. Often overlooked, however, are the theological consequences and the spirit dreams do a great job of reminding readers of the cultural erasure that happened as a result of European colonization. No scene does this better than the conversation between Water Panther, Snapping Turtle, and Black Shell. Black Shell struggles to understand how an immortal Spirit Being like Water Panther could ever experience fear, prompting Snapping Turtle to ask “Do you see images of the Piasas, the Horned Serpent, Eagle Man, or the Hero Twins on the Kristiano armor?” Black Shell does not and tells Snapping Turtle that he sees only “their cross of wood” on their armor. The chapter ends with Snapping Turtle asking Black Shell what will happen if de Soto and his cohorts triumph, “if they should convert all people to their cross… if no one believes in the Water Panther anymore.” It’s a powerful question and I imagine it will force many readers to think more critically about the European settling of the Americas.   

I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in North American history or anyone who likes historical novels with a dash of supernatural wonder.

The book is available on Amazon and can be requested in most libraries.

Beyond the Trappings of Traditional War Fiction: a review of Zoe Saadia’s Beyond the Great River

Beyond the Great River is a historical novel that takes place in the Great Lakes region during pre-Columbian times. I have spent little time in this part of the world and know little about the history of this region but I still found it quite easy to enjoy this novel. Military conflict, as is often the case in historical fiction, plays a large role in the story but, unlike many other war novels, Beyond the Great River does not build toward a pitched battle. In some respects, it may not even be appropriate to think of Beyond the Great River as a war novel. After all, the invading force in the book constitute barely 20 warriors and the village being invaded is not especially large. Moreover, there is little examination of battle tactics and no great general who we are supposed to root for in the story. Whether it is to be considered a war novel or an examination of a long-ago skirmish, Beyond the Great River has quite a bit to say about military conflict and human nature.

War has long been thought of as a young man’s calling and most historical novels are told exclusively from this perspective. However, Beyond the Great River chooses a different tack and we see the conflict mainly through the eyes of Kentika, a young girl who happened to spot the invading force as she was out exploring the forest. Desperate to save her home, Kentika rushes back to her village to inform her elders of what she saw. As it turns out, this ends up being a costly mistake. Not only do her elders initially dismiss her account, but she ends up leading the invaders back to her village because they are able to follow her fresh tracks. It’s a great example of how good intentions don’t always lead to good results and how defeat can often be brought about by very wise decisions.

Some readers will certainly find this counter-intuitive. We are used to thinking about defeat as a culmination of bad choices, whether it’s Hitler’s decision to invade Russia or Napoleon’s decision to invade Spain. What makes Beyond the Great River such an interesting read to me is that it ponders the alternative: how battle often punishes the people who make smart decisions.

Moreover, the reader is also encourage to wonder about war itself. Might is right has been the norm for most of human history and Saadia’s depiction of the Ontario region during the time of the Great Law of Peace leaves little doubt this mentality was endemic even then. Saadia’s intent is probably not to insinuate that the Great Law of Peace was some sort of farce, a great many scholars think the Great Law of Peace and the Iroquois Confederacy played a large role in the democratization of colonial societies in North America as well as Western Europe, but it should encourage introspection on the part of readers. Semantics often color our approach to history, whether it’s how we think of Alexander the Great or Shingas the Terrible, and I appreciate how Beyond the Great River encourages readers to think of how much different history can be when we incorporate the perspective of marginalized peoples as well as powerful societies.

Kentika’s attempt to inform her village of the danger posed by the foreign warriors is just one example of this. All throughout the story, logical and understandable decisions often backfire horribly and the reader is forced to wonder how much of victory depends not on genius strategy but dumb luck.

All in all, Beyond the Great Rivers is a brisk read and a great start to an interesting trilogy about pre-Columbian North America. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys stories with a strong female protagonist and to readers interested in learning more about early American history.

This novel is available on Amazon in the Kindle store and in paperback.