Monday, August 15, 2005

Massacre at the Forks: George Washington in 1755

Book 4 in Richard Patton’s ongoing “Neophyte Warrior” series continues the on-going adventures of young George Washington, and his involvement in the French and Indian war. The story is now up to the summer of 1755, and tells the details of the Battle of Monongahela on July 9, a disastrous military defeat for the British – who cannot adapt to the French and Indians’ battle style. This crucial battle, fought a few miles from the French Fort DuQuesne (modern-day Pittsburgh, PA), caused a major setback for the British during the French and Indian war.

Most of the characters from the previous books are back – at least all the ones that participate in the battle, on both sides of it. George Washington himself is actually a minor part of the overall story – still an aspiring young military leader, now aide-de-camp to Braddock but not a major player in the struggle.

The author expertly describes all aspects of the battle, both through the various characters as well as direct narration from the unseen writer. Factual details are included, along with dialog to expand the stories, including the role of Tom and Joe Fausett in the slaying of General Braddock. From the French and Indian perspective, we read with amazement how inadaptable the British leaders were -- so stubborn in their beliefs that they must only fight with the tried and true British tactics, so stuck in that way of thinking that they fail to realize their own defeat – and conclude along with the author that the British pride led to their downfall.

Old Smoke is back, offering good perspectives from his mixed background of Jesuit Catholic teaching and his native Shawnee Indian practices. This time his hot-head friend Striking Eagle goes too far, though, and dies early in the story.

The continuing episodes of the madman called “Stump Neck” again seem misplaced, filler incidents that do not relate to the rest of the story. This time, Stump Neck’s major scene early on involves some extremely graphic depictions of animal cruelty along with some profanity. Without this short episode added in, the story flows much better, with its focus as it should be: the day of the battle, and its participants. Other scenes near the beginning of the book include some bawdy jokes and vulgar language, related to the subject matter of George Washington’s illness.

Aside from these incidents, however, Massacre at the Forks is generally clean and acceptable reading material. The story does well at building the suspense to the upcoming confrontation, complete with strong dialogue and descriptions appropriate to the battle. The author again does a good job of blending the seriousness of the matter with an appropriate level of humor, with a few breaks from the intensity of the situation. We even see a few glimpses of hope, the inner thoughts of young George Washington, as we consider what his future years will bring. Providence, too, makes its case, as the characters realize that God has protected George Washington from harm, even as his very coat is riddled with bullets that don’t touch his body. Though the proud British fall, young George has a future purpose that keeps him alive.

Monday, August 1, 2005

The Heart of Thornton Creek: 19th Century Australia

The Heart of Thornton Creek, by Bonnie Leon, begins a new series “The Queensland Chronicles.” Set in 1871, The Heart of Thornton Creek introduces 22-year-old Rebecca Williams, a proud and independent young woman living in Boston. She soon meets Daniel Thornton, an Australian visiting Boston to take care of some legal matters.

Forced by economic circumstances to marry Daniel, whom she likes but does not love, Rebecca travels with Daniel to his home in Queensland, Australia. Throughout the rest of the novel, Rebecca adjusts to a very different life in the desert lands of Australia, a world that is socially and technologically behind the times -- from her perspective. Yet the greater conflicts come not from the place and time, but from family relationships, including a dominant, overbearing father-in-law.

The story is primarily told from Rebecca’s perspective, with only occasional glimpses at Daniel’s thoughts. Accordingly, Rebecca is a well-defined character, strong and willful, and we experience Australia through her views: the beauty of some parts of Australia (and the barrenness of the Thornton property); her desire to help the black (aborigine) servants; her uncertainties as well as her rebellious attitude and behavior.

Unfortunately, the other characters are less developed, and some are unlikable. Her husband, Daniel, is weak-willed, firmly under his father’s control, a young man who has forgotten the biblical command to first “leave his father and mother” when he cleaves to his wife. Even when Rebecca pleads with him, even to consider their living in a separate house on the same property, Daniel refuses.

The father-in-law, Bertram, is well spoken of by all other family members as well as others in the community, with several even telling us the specific good things Bertram did for them. Yet we never see any demonstrations of that inner goodness so attested to. He instead is shown, through numerous scenes, to be harsh and unyielding, completely dominant over everyone else’s lives. A man who is truly good, underneath a “rough exterior,” would have those qualities somehow revealed during the story. Instead, even Bertram Thornton’s stated beliefs – in God’s sovereign election (a brief reference to Calvinist theology) – are twisted, to show a character that objects even to Rebecca’s teaching the aborigines how to read, and who furthermore says that the blacks are not in God’s plan of salvation.

That Daniel and Rebecca’s marriage declines from bad to worse is no surprise. Daniel never changes, and neither does Rebecca. It would be nice to see some character growth and development, such as Daniel growing to trust his wife and assert himself rather than remain a coward. Rebecca, too, makes choices -- in how she finally deals with Daniel -- that appear inconsistent and for no good reason, since Daniel clearly has not changed any. (Contrast the moral choices here with, say, the characters in Lawana Blackwell’s “Tales of London.”) Without such growth and maturity from either character, the book leaves us feeling that their relationship is still doomed, that nothing will change in the future.

Perhaps the next book in this series will introduce some growth and change, especially after the death of the dominant father-in-law. This series’ setting, too, is unusual, with a good glimpse of life in rural Australia, a setting not often seen in contemporary Christian historical fiction.