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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

'Eagle's Cry', by David Nevin (2000)

Instead of another William Martin book, as promised last time, the subject of this critique will be Eagle's Cry, by David Nevin. This novel of early United States history concentrates on causes and effects of westward expansion in the opening years of the 19th century. Eagle's Cry opens with George Washington's death in 1799 and concludes in 1804, following the Louisiana Purchase. Most of the characters are historical figures, from Jefferson, Madison, Burr and John Quincy Adams to Meriwether Lewis, Andrew Jackson and (briefly) Napoleon Bonaparte. These characters' differing narrative viewpoints on the events of those fateful years are presented in alternating chapters. Historical names are supplemented by fictional characters Danny Mobry, the French Louisiana-born widow of an American trader, and her two married black slaves Tom and Millie. A brief 'Author's Note' following the novel explains some of Nevin's historical thinking, although the somewhat ambiguous title is not explained.

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

Yes; especially some events less familiar to me, such as the Haitian Revolution. Score = 4

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

This novel is composed almost entirely of documented historical events, told in a highly entertaining style. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Quite accurate as far as it goes, though biased and not always complete. The 'Author's Note' confesses some of Nevin's sins, like referring to Jefferson's party as "Democrats". Some omissions, such as a failure to mention the Barbary Wars begun during Jefferson's presidency, were probably intentional, limiting the novel's scope to western-related events. Another major omission is the lack of any native American voice. Not surprising, perhaps, in a novel that lionizes Jefferson, Madison and Jackson. Score = 3

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

As noted above, Jefferson, Madison and Jackson come off better than they probably were. As Nevin notes, "Burr apologists" will take issue with their man's portrayal. Lewis' character seems much more detailed than historical evidence allows. For instance, during a visit to Jefferson at Monticello, he meets Sally Hemings and speculates inwardly on the ambiguous nature of her behavior toward her master. I don't know enough about Jackson to comment on his fictionalized character; a good biography will be placed on my non-fiction reading list. Score = 3

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Yes; I plan to read 1812 sometime soon. Score = 4.

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