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

Friday, September 2, 2011

'1812' by David Nevin (1996)

This is my second David Nevin novel, after Eagle's Cry (see June 22 review). 1812 skips over the years between the end of Eagle's Cry in 1804 and 1812, which included the second term of President Jefferson and the first term of President Madison. Madison, one of the fictionalized historical heroes of Eagle's Cry, returns as the President who presides over the 'second war of independence' against Great Britain. First lady Dolley Madison also plays a major role. A more mature Andrew Jackson returns, joined by youthful new hero Winfield Scott, whose battlefield prowess vaults him from Captain to General in two years of war. Jackson and Scott eventually reward Madison's frustrating search for able military commanders, strikingly similar to Lincoln's situation in the Civil War. Jackson's involvement in the Creek War of 1813-14 is also included in the narrative, prior to the climactic Battle of New Orleans. The fictional Sally McQuirk, daughter and heir of a newspaper publisher, provides a romantic interest for young Scott (Maria Mayo, the woman Scott married, makes an appearance later in the story).

A note about the Wikipedia links; I don't vouch for the quality and/or accuracy of all these articles, but they are handy for quick reference. I'm a WP editor myself and frequently expand, clarify and correct articles I read, especially when I've just finished a work of history or biography. I urge others with an interest in history to do the same. Wikipedia is a democratic collaboration, so the larger the number of editors involved, the better the article tends to be. For serious research, of course, full histories and biographies are necessary.

No need to reiterate Nevin's political slant; that's discussed in the Eagle's Cry review. Let's move on to the five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Yes. I haven't read too much about the War of 1812 or about the Creek War. Score = 4

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

Nevin includes the main documented historical events, told with plenty of detail. Only a half-hearted attempt is made to explain the causes of the war, which is understandable since the novel focuses on the heroic, courageous soldiers, while President Madison fumes about his and his administration's shortcomings. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Nevin adheres closely to the facts of documented historical events. Conspicuous omissions are absent as well, other than the lack of any in-depth British perspective. Unfortunately, no 'Author's Note' or list of sources is included this time. Score = 4

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Nevin, unlike many historical novelists, includes historical persons as major dramatic characters. Since the romanticization (is that a word?), simplification and polarization of characters is a feature of most historical novels, an experienced reader of the genre should not be surprised that Madison, Scott and Jackson come off better than they probably were. In like manner, the novel's historical villains, especially Secretary of War Armstrong, Senator Daniel Webster and British General Cockburn, probably come off worse. Creek leader William "Red Eagle" Weatherford gets a respectful, though brief treatment. Score = 3

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

Yes; at some point Dream West will be read and reviewed. Score = 4.

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