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

Monday, May 23, 2011

'Cape Cod' (1991) by William Martin

Cape Cod is, on one level, a multi-generational study of the well-known historic place and several families that lived there, somewhat in the style of Michener or his younger admirer Edward Rutherfurd. On another level, it's a behind-the-history detective story, adding a present-day plot line featuring descendents of early families and a search for a legendary lost document. The mystery plot reminds me of Stone's Fall, by David Liss. Add the two together and you get a novel that's highly entertaining yet packed with historical detail.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Most definitely. From cryptic clues to past visits by Vikings of Vinland and early European explorers (Hudson and/or Champlain?) to the native American tribes awaiting the arrival of the Pilgrims, to fishermen, privateers, smugglers, whalers, runaway slaves and reclusive writers; Cape Cod is full of potential side trips into historical study. Score = 4

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

As noted above, the history content was high throughout the novel. Although there is some interesting historical speculation, I didn't find any distortions, errors or significant omissions. Recently, I've been searching out novels that include events leading up to and during the Revolutionary War, and was not surprised to find that it was a time when not too much happened on Cape Cod other than coastal smuggling. The major events occurred in nearby Boston and elsewhere, but one interesting event is included - the shipwreck of HMS Somerset in 1778. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Judging from the follow-up study I've done, events and historical characters included in the novel seem to be presented accurately. The story includes some interesting fictional speculations, such as the story of what really caused the wreck of the Somerset. In future, I'm going to find one or more straight history texts and/or biographies to read in conjunction with historical novels, but Martin seems to be very good on historical accuracy. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Most historical characters are only mentioned in passing, but a few have a bit of dialog, including pre-Revolution era lawyer James Otis (born on Cape Cod) and a beach-wandering Henry David Thoreau. Young Senator Jack Kennedy does a cameo in a telephone conversation. Score = 3

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters?

Definitely; in fact, I already have. Next post will be The Lost Constitution. Not a sequel, but set in New England. Score = 4.

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