Tuesday, June 7, 2011

1776 by David McCullough

Having been a history major, I've read my fair share of dry, dull, and snooze inducing texts over the course of my studies.  There are some great historical non-fiction books that are also page turners, but for some reason my professors always assigned books that were too technical for public consumption.  Most were a real slog to get through.  Now that I've closed that chapter of my life and can read what I like, when I like, I'm prone to enjoy a good historical book now and then.

My first introduction to David McCullough was as the narrator of Ken Burns excellent documentary, The Civil War.  What a voice.  I had no idea he was both a historian and a writer until much later.  I'd heard good things about his novel 1776 for a long time, so I put it on my Christmas list.  Some how my letter must have gotten through to Santa, because it was one of my gifts.

McCullough writes in a way that just carries you along, swept away by the current of the narrative.  The book was hard to put down.  In fact, I spent several nights reading far later than I should have.

One of my biggest pet peeves with historical novels, is when a writer makes up dialogue for the characters, and intuits what he or she believes might have been said by these characters.  McCullough doesn't do anything of the sort, in fact, the only quotes he uses are from source material such as diaries and letters.  Hurray!

Everyone knows the generic grade school version of the Revolutionary War, but this book gets into the thick of the action right at the siege of Boston in 1776.  Nothing is glamorized in the book.  It deals with the hard facts of how rag-tag and hopeless the cause actually seemed to those involved.  We get first hand accounts of the massive and devastating defeats the Continental Army suffered at the hands of the British and the Hessian mercenaries in New York.  I never realized how bad things were, how frustrated Washington was, and what little supplies and massive sickness there were among the troops.

Some of the characters that McCullough pulls out from the shadows of history, should be the heroes that everyone remembers.  Two that stand out the most, are Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox.  Both men had no military training, and instead learned about war and tactics in books.  Knox is the more remarkable of the two, having been a bookshop owner who eventually did the unthinkable.  He trekked through the wilderness to Fort Ticonderoga to fetch all of the cannons and pull them back to Boston just in time to give the Americans the upper hand.

As the title suggests the book deals with just the first year of the war, which was really the make or break moment of the revolution.  It seemed everything was going horribly wrong, and that the British would swiftly put down the rebels.  The Americans were at there most desperate, but this is when we're shown the decisions, and the opportunities that saved the Revolution and gave the Americans the momentum to persevere.

The book was a complete joy from beginning to end, and I'd highly recommend it.  I may actually hand it off to my father with the hope that he likes it as much as I did.

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