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

Monday, August 15, 2011

'Northwest Passage' by Kenneth Roberts (1936)

After finishing Rabble In Arms, I thought I was done with Kenneth Roberts for a while. Then I discovered that my local library had a copy of Northwest Passage. It's main historical character is Robert Rogers, creator of 'Rogers' Rangers'. This irregular force of colonial soldiers fought alongside the British army in the French and Indian War (1754-63). Rogers specialized in Indian-style forest tactics, as opposed to the strict British open-field formations that proved disastrous in the early stages of the war. In Rogers, novelist Roberts found another example of a brilliant leader and out-of-the-box thinker who was opposed and dragged down by the jealousy and envy of lesser men. Ayn Rand made her literary debut ten years later with another hero in this mold, in The Fountainhead. So, when reading Roberts, one should remember that the historical characters were almost certainly not as heroic or despicable as their fictionalized counterparts.

The novel's title was the quest undertaken by Rogers after the war. Thwarted by his enemies, Rogers got no further west than Fort Michilimackinac (at the strait between Lakes Huron and Michigan). His life after that was a series of ups and downs, ending in alcoholism and destitution. Roberts' fictional main character is another man from northern New England, named Langdon Towne. Towne is a relative of the fictional Nason family of Arundel, and shares a friendship with the irrepressible Cap Huff. Towne becomes one of Rogers' Rangers and an aide to Rogers himself. He is thus in a position to observe and comment on the leader's actions. The fictional Steven Nason had a similar relationship to Benedict Arnold in Arundel.

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

Yes. I haven't read much on the French and Indian War, so this novel opened up some new territory. Also, Roberts used some recently discovered (at that time) material about Rogers' career to flesh out his account. An author's note referred to a bibliography, which unfortunately was not included in the edition of the novel that I found. I always love it when historical novelists include bibliography. Score = 4

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

Yes. As usual, Roberts includes a wealth of historical detail. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Yes. Roberts is always scrupulous in adhering to historical facts. Only his interpretation of those facts might be questioned. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

As noted above, there is undoubtedly some exaggeration to make the 'good' characters better and the 'bad' characters worse. This tendency made me wonder, at times, whether a particular historical character really did something he does in the novel. These are, however, always minor actions that don't contradict known facts. As long as the reader keeps that in mind, it's not a big problem. Score = 3

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

Definitely. I just found Lydia Bailey, and will read it soon. Score = 5.

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