Friday, March 23, 2018

Forgotten Books: TO TRY MEN'S SOULS by New Gingrich and William R. Forstchen (2009)

In gearing up to visit George Washington's Mount Vernon® later this year, I googled around for historical fiction featuring old Georgie. And found surprisingly little. Along with a one called Citizen Washington by William Martin (which I'm now reading), only three pop to the surface. This is one of those three, first in a trilogy by Gingrich and Forstchen. If anyone can name other novels, I'd be pleased to hear about them.

To Try Men's Souls begins on Christmas Night, 1775, and ends the evening of the following day. As you've likely guessed from the cover, the action focuses on the celebrated Crossing of the Delaware, and the all-important Battle of Trenton. 

Actually, heroic as it was, the Crossing wasn't all that important, or the Battle either, except that they gave Washington and his men their first taste of victory (after several disastrous defeats), and emboldened them to carry on. The feeling conveyed here is that without this small win, they would have all given up and gone home. 

I find that pretty hard to believe. Washington was used to defeat, and could likely have absorbed another. His overall strategy was just to keep his army alive and avoid conflict unless he could be pretty damn sure of victory. The Crossing the the Battle were both very risky endeavors, and he was mighty lucky to get away with them. But I have to believe that if they had never taken place - or even resulted in defeat - he would have kept on trucking, likely with the same result. 

Still, it's a good story, and Gingrich and Forstchen tell it well. Point of view alternates between Washington himself, Tom Paine (the Common Sense guy) and a common man volunteer from New Jersey, named Jonathan. 

With George, we feel the problems and pressures heaped upon him by the Continental Congress, the British, the Hessians, the tories, his soldiers, Mother Nature, Providence, Martha and he himself. 

With Paine, we feel the pain of expectations, and the guilty fear that he may have led everyone astray. Soldiers carry copies of Common Sense in their packs, and either revere him or revile him, depending on they react to trudging around New England without clothes, or shoes, or food, or pay. 

With Jonathan, we feel every bit of that misery resulting from those deprivations, plus a family that has taken the easy way out and sided with the British. 

Gingrich and Fortschen have collaborated on a good number of other books, and this is my first. My guess is that Gringrich provides most of the historical detail, while Forstchen cranks out the prose. But that is just a guess. I've found nothing online describing their writing methods. Anyway, they do a good job of bringing history alive. 

My only complaint is that there are a lot of musings and flashbacks, particularly in Washington's POV, about earlier battles, which I don't know enough about to fully appreciate. OK, that's partly my fault, but still disturbing. I guess the authors can't be blamed for starting here, rather than with all the drubbings, which would NOT have resulted in a rousing read. 

The following books in the trilogy are Valley Forge and Victory at Yorktown. Rumor has it those books are less laden with flashbacks, and since I  toured both sites a few years ago, I expect to like them even better than this one. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Davy Crockett Comics: FRONTIER SCOUT!

This thrilling slice of history, featuring special guest stars Davy 
Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Barrett Travis and Sam Houston, appeared in Young Heroes #37, from June-July 1955, and was uploaded to comicbookplus by a swell fellow known as "prime user." Thanks, prime!

Friday, March 16, 2018

unForgotten Books: LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry (1985)

No one has forgotten Lonesome Dove, and it ain’t likely anyone ever will. But I re-read (or more precisely re-listened to) it recently, and discovered a few things I'd forgotten.

Remember when there were shops specializing in renting audiobooks on cassette? Yeah, there really were such places, some twenty-odd years ago. That’s when and where I came upon a copy of the unabridged reading of this book by Lee Horsley. Yeah, I’m talking about the Archie Goodwin-Matt Houston-Guns of Paradise Lee Horsley, who I didn’t especially like on TV, but who did a masterful job with this novel. It stuck in my brain ever since as the perfect marriage of narrator to book, and I’ve been hankering for another listen ever since.

Well, I finally got one, and I’m pleased to report it’s still every bit as good as I remembered. And while Horsley’s narration makes it shine, the real star of the book is Larry McMurtry’s prose. I have to say that word-for-word, the first half of this novel is one of the most entertaining reads I’ve ever had.

Point of view shifts quickly, often from one paragraph to the next, introducing us to a huge cast of outrageously captivating characters. Each has his own cockeyed world view, and many of the lines are laugh-out-loud funny. McMurtry keeps the yuks coming through most of the first half, leaving me agog with envy.

But somewhere in the middle, things turn serious. McMurtry’s West is a grim and deadly place, and the further our cast of characters stray from Lonesome Dove, the grimmer and deadlier it gets. The new characters we meet are dumber and duller, and the older ones stop having fun. Point of view shifts much slower, and we’re stuck with dumb, dull folks for way too long. That’s when a lot of people start dying, while others are subjected to such misery they wish they could die (and I was rooting for them to hurry up and do it).

This is still a great novel, of course. There’s a reason it won a Pulitzer Prize. And while I’d like it better if the humor of the first half filled the whole book, chances are it would now be largely forgotten, rather than the cornerstone of a franchise that spawned three more novels, more TV miniseries than I can count and at least couple of regular TV series.

So I think everyone should read it. Or better yet, listen to it, if you’re lucky enough to score the Horsley version. Just don’t be surprised when it turns your smile upside down.