Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review

Rise to Rebellion

by Jeff Shaara

There is much to commend Jeff Shaara for his "Rise to Rebellion." It is an ambitious work that spans seven years of American resistance to British authority bracketed by the so-called Boston Massacre and the thirteen colonies' unanimous declaration of independence from England. Shaara uses the viewpoints of Ben Franklin, John Adams, General Thomas Gage, and George Washington almost exclusively to frame the narration of events. He portrays their thoughts, emotions, and human characteristics skillfully both by his selection of content and by his use of language. He has obviously done much research.

A scene I especially liked has Franklin touring the countryside in Ireland. Observing the downtrodden population, he recognizes that the King and his ministers, having no concept of the nature of their American subjects, are convinced that Americans can be forced into submission and abject subservience as readily as had been the Irish. All that was required to accomplish this was the administration of a heavy dose of unrelenting punishment.

Despite these compliments, I've rated the book three stars.

I found the book to be a slow read. As much as I value subjective narration, I believe Shaara emphasized far too much what his four famous characters may have felt and thought. The major events that stirred the populace to rebellion received secondary consideration. The book, 481 pages, provided me little excitement.

Much worse, Shaara's account of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the British soldiers' retreat is unacceptably vague and too often inaccurate.

I judged Shaara's characterization of some of the day's notable participants to be superficial. For example, Shaara portrays Paul Revere as a simpleton who needs Dr. Joseph Warren's instruction of how he is to get across Boston's back bay the night of the British army's embarkation, why he needs to do so, and where he is supposed to ride. In truth, Revere had made the arrangements for his crossing, not Warren; he had ridden to Lexington and Concord a week earlier; and he knew entirely what General Gage was planning.

Shaara's narration of Revere's crossing is full of errors. He has Revere's boat rowed by one person, not two. The boat is beached on sand, not received at the old battery dock at Charlestown. Revere is given a large horse to ride by an unidentified person, not the smallish horse he received from Charlestown's militia leader, James Conant. According to Shaara, Revere sees the two lanterns in the Christ Church tower after he had crossed the bay and realizes then that the British are using boats to reach Cambridge, not the land route through Boston Neck. Before leaving Boston, Revere had instructed the sexton of the church to display two lanterns, while he was crossing the bay, recognizing that if he failed to get across, Colonel Conant would need to know how the British army was proceeding. Finally, using one paragraph, Shaara has Revere ride off into the countryside, how far we are not told. He writes nothing about how Revere was challenged soon afterward by British officers detailed to intercept express riders, how he evaded them, how he alerted Sam Adams and John Hancock in Lexington, how he rode toward Concord with William Dawes and met Dr. Samuel Prescott, and how he was arrested by other detailed officers while Prescott escaped.

Shaara has Major John Pitcairn, whom he identifies as "Thomas Pitcairn," depict the redcoat advance to Lexington, the battle on the town common, the subsequent march to Concord, the exchange of musket fire at the North Bridge, and the entire march back to Charlestown. Nobody else contributes information. It is as though Shaara did not feel it expedient to provide detail or he didn't know the detail. He fills this void of information with generalizations.

He provides nothing specific about the activities of Pitcairn's advance scouts, who intercept several militiamen sent out successively by Lexington Captain John Parker to locate the army's whereabouts. He does not mention that the six light infantry companies Pitcairn commands, in advance of the six grenadier companies that the expedition's commander, Colonel Francis Smith, controls, divides in half upon reaching the Lexington common, not according to Pitcairn's wishes; and it is the first company of the six that opens fire on the 50 some militiamen standing on the common.

Shaara has Pitcairn witness the fighting at the North Bridge even though Pitcairn never left the center of Concord. The famous incident of Pitcairn falling off his horse and having his holstered pistols, attached to his saddle, carried to the rebels by his horse, takes place no more than a mile east of Concord, one might conclude, in a field, not on the road at Fiske Hill, near Lexington. The extensive use of redcoat flankers to attack militia companies hiding behind trees, barns, and stone walls seemingly did not occur.

Shaara does write that Colonel Smith's forces were reinforced at Lexington by another army sent out of Boston by General Gage, but he doesn't mention its commander, Colonel Hugh Percy, who saved the combined forces from annihilation or having to surrender. He does not mention that the worst fighting of the entire day took place subsequently in Menotomy nor how Percy tricked his militia opponents into believing that he intended to cross the Great Bridge at Cambridge and that he sent his forces in the opposite direction, to Charlestown. In one paragraph -- one paragraph -- Shaara narrates Percy's entire retreat, from Lexington to Boston, neglecting to inform us that the retreat actually ended at Charlestown.

I recognize that it was not Shaara's intention to write a book about Lexington and Concord. However, this complex, momentous event did happen. It should have been an important part of his narration. That he glossed over, fudged, and generalized details in the two chapters he devoted to its telling caused me to wonder just how accurate his narration was in other parts of the book. Shaara would have done better if he had written two novels to span the seven years: the first concluding with the events of April 19, 1775, and the second starting with the Battle of Breeds Hill and concluding with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That would have afforded him a better opportunity to narrate important events in greater detail.