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

Thursday, July 14, 2011

'Arundel' by Kenneth Roberts (1933)

Yet again, the great historical novel site has facilitated my discovery of a very fine historical novel author, Kenneth Roberts. Arundel is the first in a Revolutionary War trilogy, following the adventures of several fictitious residents of what later became the state of Maine. The novel's first-person narrator Steven Nason and his family are traders and proprietors of an inn serving the little town of Arundel, later renamed Kennebunkport (today's Arundel lies further to the north). Steven has become an accomplished backwoodsman by the time he reaches adulthood, knowledge he gained by accompanying his father on trading trips among the Indians. Steven joins Colonel Benedict Arnold's small expeditionary force in the fall of 1775 to help guide him through the northern wilderness to attack British-held Quebec.

Being written in 1933, the writing style of Arundel sometimes seems quaint, but never dated. Steven's narration and private thoughts are related in a convincingly provincial and straightforward style, without condescension. I had fun finding definitions for some of the archaic words and activities.

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

Yes. For the first time since I began this blog, I had a straight history at hand to consult when in doubt about historical details. Willard Stern Randall's Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor helped to provide context for the novel. Google Earth also came in handy for viewing the country described and the route of Arnold's expedition. As he notes following the end of the novel, Roberts' sources included several journals kept by officers in Arnold's little army. These first-person accounts supply many of the day-to-day details that make the story compelling. Plus, I always appreciate it when writers of historical fiction acknowledge their sources. The only shortcoming is that, because the events occur in such a short time period and are related so thoroughly in the novel, there's not that much research left to do. Score = 4

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

Yes. Arnold's expedition was probably the most amazing feat-of-arms performed by any military force during the Revolutionary War, even though it ended in failure. The story doesn't need much fictional 'spice' to make it a riveting tale. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Yes. The novel is full of historical detail, much of it drawn from the journals and correspondence of the principal actors. Some of the details are still argued over by historians today, but nothing was intentionally altered. Roberts' faithfulness to historical sources contrasts with the liberties taken by most novelists for the sake of dramatic effect. Score=5

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Roberts' descriptions of Arnold's physical prowess are unlike anything I've read elsewhere, and are perhaps exaggerated. Likewise the other-worldly woodcraft of the Indians. The personalities and actions of the historical characters are consistent with what I've read elsewhere. Among the 'historicals', Arnold gets the largest role, but many others get significant dialog time, including Henry Dearborn, Reuben Colburn, Daniel Morgan and Aaron Burr. Score=4

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

I have already begun Rabble In Arms, the sequel to Arundel. Can't wait to see what Steven and his friends do next. Score = 5.

1 comment:

  1. Indeed but Roberts took liberties with the folks from my area of Central Maine, painting them in a bad light, so there's a regional rivalry going on here. I address this in my nonfiction account Patriot on the Kennebec. I'm Colburn's descendant.