Tag Archives: historical novels

Novel approach to King’s Mountain

I finished reading Sharyn McCrumb’s novel King’s Mountain night before last, and I’ve got to say that I’m pretty impressed at how much Overmountain Men lore she managed to pack into it.  The gang’s all there, even fairly obscure characters like Enoch Gilmer.  McCrumb is obviously passionate about the subject, and she’s done her homework. 

The book’s not totally free of historical slip-ups.  McCrumb indicates that Ferguson’s posting to the Carolinas was essentially a banishment to a backwater of the war, but the South had become the seat of Britain’s major offensive efforts by the time Ferguson arrived with Clinton’s Charleston expedition.  At one point she says in passing that Light-Horse Harry Lee was an Overmountain Man, which is an error I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else.  Finally, her characterization of James Williams as a first-rate scoundrel traces back to questionable statements found in Col. William Hill’s 1815 memoir.  Hill’s account is like Super Glue—it’s handy to have around, but you’ve got to be extremely careful when using it.  It’s the work of an old veteran nursing a grudge, and some of his charges against Williams just don’t hold up in light of other sources.  (For a detailed discussion of the whole Williams/Hill kerfuffle, I recommend William T. Graves’s new book.  I’m not as inclined to exonerate Williams as fully as Graves does, but he makes an excellent case for taking Hill’s memoir with a generous dose of salt.)

When it comes to matters open to novelistic license, my only complaint is that McCrumb’s Ferguson is a pretty humorless, embittered guy.  Although Ferguson endured repeated disappointments during his military career, his letters also indicate an endearing charm and wit, and they don’t really come across in the novel.

These caveats aside, I enjoyed the book and I hope it sparks widespread interest in the battle.  If you like the Southern Campaign and early Tennessee history as much as I do, you’ll get a kick out of it.  McCrumb employs John Sevier and Virginia Sal as dual narrators, and as much as I’m drawn to Sevier as a historical figure, I found the Virginia Sal chapters the most compelling.  We know so little about Ferguson’s purported lover and the other women who followed the armies that they’re among the voiceless participants in the Revolution; McCrumb effectively lends them a voice of their own.  Reading the story in fictional form as told by the people who lived it reminds you that they didn’t have our benefit of knowing how things would turn out, and they endured the pivotal autumn of 1780 with all the hopes and fears of flesh-and-blood human beings.

It’s worth noting that the novel is a distinctly Appalachian story, written by an author who specializes in the region.  This is an interesting modern example of Appalachians claiming King’s Mountain as their own American Revolutionary moment, a process that began with regional historians and antiquarians of the nineteenth century.  If you’re interested in how this regionalized memory of the battle emerged, you might enjoy my article on that subject in the Fall 2009 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

North Koreans love Gone With the Wind

Pyongyang is just about the last place in the world you’d expect to find GWTW fans, but apparently you can’t swing a dead cat there without hitting one.

Maybe the notion of a society devastated by war and famine is especially resonant in North Korea.  Or maybe it appeals to some aspect of East Asian culture in general; Tony Horwtiz mentioned GWTW‘s popularity among Japanese visitors to Atlanta in Confederates in the Attic.

Personally, I think the explanation is pretty simple: Margaret Mitchell was a master storyteller who knew how to create remarkable characters.  Sure, her portrayal of the Old South was mythical—but holy cow, what a myth she managed to build.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Fiction enslaved to facts

Dimitri Rotov on the late Gore Vidal’s historical fiction:

Characters were not integral to the plot but were inventory items on an historical checklist; they had to be present, kept busy somehow. They had to be there in the fiction because they had been there in history.

For Gore Vidal, the historical novel was a meander that touched on past events in the correct order leaving most in, regardless of story value. If you were a buff, I suppose the appeal might be to make a list of all the people and events included. Maybe that was the challenge for him – how much history he could pile into a fictional format.

Rotov’s analysis sums up more clearly than I could the reason why I rarely read novels about prominent historical figures. All too often, they’re nothing but historical narratives with dialogue added, which makes for a rather uninspiring read.

This was my main problem with the only Jeff Shaara book I’ve read, Rise to Rebellion. His father’s masterpiece, The Killer Angels, was as much a work of artistic imagination as historical reconstruction. Michael Shaara crawled into his characters’ skins, using the Battle of Gettysburg as a venue to meditate on universal themes—war, freedom, equality, country. I found Rise to Rebellion to be a completely different animal, a pageant in which prominent historical figures waited for their cues, stepped onstage, played whatever parts they played in the historical record, and then sauntered back to the wings. If you’re going to be so careful to color inside the lines, why not just write narrative non-fiction?

At the end of the day, of course, this comes down to personal taste, so your mileage may vary. Judging by the popularity of Jeff Shaara’s books, a lot of readers’ mileage varies quite a bit from mine. Fair enough.

Anyway, while we’re on the subject of Vidal’s Lincoln, I did enjoy the adaptation with Sam Waterston. Contrast his portrayal with that of Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln. Waterston gives us the gregarious, folksy Lincoln, whereas Fonda gives us the moody, melancholy one. Two very different performances, but they’re both right on the money.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

John Jakes on writing historical fiction

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Filed under History and Memory

New history blog

Steven Wilson is the curator and assistant director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum here in East Tennessee.  He also happens to be my former mentor and ex-boss, and one heck of a nice guy.  He’s just started a new blog called A Novel Idea of History, to which I humbly direct your attention.

Besides his work at the Lincoln site, Steven has managed museums specializing in everything from the frontier to firearms, and he maintains an active interest in military history.  He’s also the author of several historical novels.  Voyage of the Gray Wolves, Between the Hunters and the Hunted, and Armada are all set on the high seas during World War II.  His latest novel, President Lincoln’s Spy, centers on Civil War espionage.  Check out the books and make his blog part of your online reading list.  You’ll be glad you did.

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Filed under History on the Web