Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

'Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake' (2001) by Edward Cline

Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake, by Edward Cline, is the first of a series, and an interesting novel for a couple of reasons. The first one is history-related: the protagonists are members of a band of smugglers, operating in the south-western English county of Cornwall. No dates are mentioned in the text, but a brief discussion among the well-informed and politically astute smugglers indicates that the action begins during the years of the War of the Austrian Succession; after the 1743 Battle of Dettingen and before the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy. You won't find many other specific historical events embedded in the fictional story, so one suspects that this one bit was inserted just to establish a time and place. The historical interest lies rather in the descriptions of the machinations of English justice and government at that time, the attitudes of various sorts of Englishmen toward their government, and the way some of those attitudes were evolving toward the principles embodied in the founding of the United States.

The second interesting thing, or group of things, about this novel are the personalities of the main protagonists. While reading, there seemed to be something familiar in the characters of young Jack Frake, his mentor John Smith, and especially the smuggler chief Augustus Skelly. It wasn't until I got to the end and read the author's 'Acknowledgements' that I realized what made them seem so familiar. I learned that the author is a great admirer of the novels of Ayn Rand. That's it, I thought - the three all share character traits with the hero of The Fountainhead, the iconoclast architect Howard Rourk. These three all possess Rourk's rugged individualism, innate and unshakable personal convictions, the lack of any moral ambiguity or hypocrisy, and an unfailingly clear discernment of truth and falsehood, strength and weakness. Having even one, let alone three such characters in one novel can seem a bit over-the-top at times, but didn't detract too much from my enjoyment of the story. Plausibility suffered, at times, from the unrelenting heroism, but maybe I'm just a cynic. Anyway, let's move on to the historical-novel critique. Remember the five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
  2. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
  3. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
  4. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
  5. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters?
How does Sparrowhawk, Book One: Jack Frake rate?
  1. Score = 3. Because much of my current historical reading is about the period leading up to the American Revolution, this novel's discussion of conditions in England was interesting. The protagonists struggle with the inequities of the legal system in England at that time. Their objections dovetail neatly into the arguments soon to come in the American colonies. Indeed, I'm sure that's exactly the course the author intends to pursue in the rest of the series. The end of Sparrowhawk, Book One (spoiler alert!) finds young Jack Frake headed for America aboard the good ship 'Sparrowhawk'.
  2. Score = 2. Pending further research on 18th century British smuggling and legal procedures, I suspect that historical fact has been somewhat shaped in pursuit of a clean ideological arc. That pursuit required no falsehoods, merely selective inclusion of historical data. Nothing wrong with that, of course. The reader of historical fiction can never forget that the purpose of a novel is to tell a story, not necessarily to present an accurate historical narrative.
  3. Score = 2. As noted above, there are no easily identifiable historical events that are part of the story in this novel so it's hard to judge accuracy. That was probably another intentional move by the author.
  4. Score = 2. I detected no historical characters, other than those distant figures connected with the events mentioned above, though there may be some modeling. The smugglers' Rourk-ish willingness to face punishment rather than back down or run away reminded me somewhat of the career of English 'radical' John Wilkes. It seems highly unlikely that any actual band of smugglers ever resembled Skelly's gang, but I'll reserve final judgment until I do a search to see if any smuggler-penned novels or memoirs exist.
  5. Answer = yes. Not right away, perhaps, but I am curious to see what becomes of young Jack Frake in America.
Next time: Redcoat by Bernard Cornwell. Thanks again to Margaret Donsbach at Historical for categorizing historical novels by period and location, making it much easier for me to locate novels with similar settings.

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