Sunday, December 1, 2002

The Reluctant Commander: George Washington's First Command

Richard Patton’s series "The Neophyte Warrior" continues with the second book, The Reluctant Commander. Starting immediately where His Majesty’s Envoy ended, the tale unfolds with the beginning of the French and Indian War in the spring of 1754.

The Reluctant Commander includes a synopsis of the previous book and its several subplots, as well as a "Cast of Characters." The main story involves Washington in his new role as Colonel and – reluctantly – in charge of the military operation to remove the French from the disputed territories. But everything seems stacked against the young leader, who can never acquire enough men, supplies and food. Soon he inadvertently starts a war, and later experiences his first – and only – military defeat. The actual events at Great Meadows are covered in exacting detail, with the actual historical figures as the primary characters involved. As such, the story would yield few surprises to historians; but since the event is little known to today’s average reader, The Reluctant Commander provides a thorough, yet entertaining, history lesson complete with witty dialogue and humorous moments. Through Patton’s historical narrative and character interaction, we can appreciate both the political situation and the colonists’ attitudes. The many Scottish characters in particular enliven the story with their rich heritage of stubborn independence, drunken merriment, and remembrances of past conflicts between Scottish and British in years past.

The subplots begun in the first book take a backseat for a time, with the more pressing action involving Washington and his cohorts -- Christopher Gist (though in a much smaller role this time), Robert Stobo, Jacob Van Braam and Captain James Mackay. Old Smoke and "Stump Neck" (formerly known as Pariah West) are still around, but in reduced roles. One exception to this reduced coverage is an expanded role for the somewhat comical Indian "Striking Eagle", Old Smoke’s young friend now obsessed with killing Englishmen. The author skillfully employs dialogue between Striking Eagle and a French soldier to illustrate the radically differing views of warfare. The contrasts are indeed striking, and clearly displayed: civilized Europeans versus barbarian, savage American Indians; and the continental European "line" style warfare versus hide-and-ambush combat in this new, as-yet-untamed land. Then comes also the ironic savage-reversal with the bizarre story of "Stump Neck," an Englishman gone mad, reverting to barbarian cruelty far worse than the Indians who never had "civilized society" to begin with.

Richard Patton continues a well-written, historically detailed account of a little-known period in American History, events which would help bring about the American Revolution and forever impact its leader, George Washington. The only thing the book lacks is geographical aids – any map or maps, which would help in placing the proper context of "Great Meadows" and other places referenced. Perhaps future installments of the "Neophyte Warrior" will include maps showing the places of action. Still, the series is off to a good start with the first two books, and the third one – The Lion’s Apprentice – promises further developments (and the end of this second book gives a brief look ahead).

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