Monday, January 17, 2011

Redcoat

Redcoat
© 1998 Bernard Cornwell
485 pages


Shortly after the capture of Philadelphia in September 1777, General George Washington led his Continental army in battle against the now-defending British army. In the chaos of his opening assault,  brothers Sam and Nate Gilpin -- both privates, and both wearing the red coat of the British army -- were captured and ordered to tend to the American wounded, including an injured merchant-turned-patriot soldier named Jonathan Becket.  A sudden reversal offered both the chance to escape both the battle and a life's service in the army -- but Nate's decision to make a run for it cost him his life.  Both armies retreated into winter quarters, where Sam continued nurse the American -- now a prisoner himself -- back to health at the behest of his sister, a strong-willed Patriot whose forthrightness and charm give her even Lord William Howe's ear.  Throughout the long winter, while the American army languishes in Valley Forge,  Sam keeps the company of saucy rebel ladies, and makes unexpected friends and enemies alike -- growing from a simple private to a troubled man torn by conviction.

Although this is a historical novel set in during the midst of the war, it is not a war story.  Most of the book takes place during the long winter of '77-'78, and it is personal drama -- character drama -- that takes the field, as people struggle with loyalties to their countries, their ideals, their friends, and themselves. This surprised me, but pleasantly so. As usual, the novel is flecked with little historical and technical details that give the setting life, but it's the characters who reign. Sam Gilpin is not unlike other main characters used by Cornwell --  strikingly decent, though not without his faults. Cornwell played an awful lot of tricks on me with the characters in this book -- those who I started out liking, I grew to despise, and those I disliked at first I found myself utterly interested in. So help me, I never expected to be enthralled by a love triangle, but after reading a score or so pages in a matter of a week, something clicked and I read the better part of 300 pages in a single sitting. Romantic threads are only marginally existent in the books I read, but Cornwell's worked for me. It's not the war story I or others might've expected, but I certainly enjoyed it.

I checked this out because I could not find the Cornwell books I wanted to read, but what attracted me to this one -- instead of Stonehenge, say -- was the prospect of reading an 'American' story through the eyes of a British private. This was somewhat reflected by the favorable characterization of Lord William Howe, who seems an awfully kind gentleman to be wearing the coat of a military man, but Sam isn't particularly passionate about the 'Cause'. He's in America to fight the rebellion because he's a soldier and soldiers do as they're told. His motivations mature rapidly through the winter, but Sam's no idealist fighting to keep the Realm whole -- or to campaign for Republicanism. The American characters tend to be preachy when they're in Patriot mode, but they don't hold a candle to the unpleasantness of the American loyalists, who are obsessed with money and are a downright ornery bunch. None of them seem to have any principles beyond getting rich and remaining so, which I think is unduly mean to the historical loyalists.

Not as much as a 'British' version of events as I'd hoped, but I truly enjoyed this story of a man growing to realize there are things worth standing up for, like love and friendship.


Related:

  • Jeff Shaara's Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause, which feature American generals complaining about the complete uselessness of the militia and British generals complaining that this is a stupid war to waste money, time, and soldiers' lives on. (Er, if memory serves.)
  • The Complete Idiot's Guide to British History, authored by a Britisher and which gave me some much-needed perspective regarding Britain's treatment of the colonies. 

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