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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

'Rabble In Arms' by Kenneth Roberts (1933)

Rabble In Arms is the second novel of a Revolutionary War trilogy by Kenneth Roberts, following Arundel. The two novels have the same publication date, but it's unclear whether they were written in the same year. They have very different first-person narrative styles. Steven Nason, the fictional woodsman of Arundel, has an archaic, plain-spoken manner meant to invoke that particular time and place. Nason returns as a character in Rabble In Arms but the narrator this time is another fictional resident of the little town of Arundel, Maine. Peter Merrill is the son of a shipbuilder and a fourth-generation native son. Peter uses none of the archaic terms, stilted speech and provincial attitudes of Steven Nason, making the Merrills seem both more contemporary and less authentic. Another returning character from Arundel is Nason's rough-and-ready friend Cap Huff, who has lost none of his fractured syntax, sideways reasoning and light-fingered ways. I did, however, miss Nason's commentary on his friend's idiosyncrasies.

As the novel opens in March 1776, Peter and his younger brother Nathaniel are in London on a mission to sell one of their father's ships. A letter from home tells of the hardships suffered by those in Arundel who seem to lack zeal in support of the Revolution. The elder Merrill asks his sons to return as soon as possible, as their stay in London has aroused the suspicions of the local Patriots. Upon their return, they are persuaded to join Nason and Huff in a company preparing to march from Arundel to reinforce General Benedict Arnold's little American army in resisting a British invasion from Canada.

The brothers are not entirely convinced that taking on the British army is a good idea, but realize that their family will be safe from patriotic persecution only if the Merrills join the cause. Their story joins with Arnold's from the strategic retreat from Canada through the climactic American victory at Saratoga, New York. In addition to the excitement of the historical story, Roberts adds romance, espionage and comic relief from the irrepressible Cap Huff. I felt that the fictional characters were not as well-drawn as in Arundel, but still engaging.

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

Not as much as Arundel, since I knew more about these events before reading the novel. Still, Roberts' portrayals of Arnold and other historical characters makes me want to read more about them, and about those world-changing years. Score = 4

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

Yes. The Saratoga campaign culminated in the victory that ended the British threat in the north. Roberts includes extensive historical detail; military, political and personal. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Yes. Once again, Roberts is scrupulously faithful to historical sources. Details of battle scenes and military life are certainly somewhat fictionalized, but have an authentic feel. Score = 5

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Roberts casts most of the historical characters as heroes or villains, without much in between. Hero-in-chief is once again Benedict Arnold. Principal villains are Horatio Gates and James Wilkinson. Each of these men was certainly more complex than Roberts' fictionalized portrayals, but the novel does not attempt nuanced character studies of historicals. In the next to last chapter, Roberts (speaking through Peter Merrill) postulates a somewhat fantastical justification of Arnold's later treason. However, other than that speculative bit and the good-vs-evil simplification, the historical characters' actions seem to be accurately described. Score = 4

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

Definitely. The third volume of the trilogy is The Lively Lady. My library doesn't have it, so I'll have to buy it at some point. Score = 4.

1 comment:

  1. The last 5 or so years I have been fascinated with historical novels. At the start I have read Candace Robb and enjoyed the novels thouroughly along with Walter Havighurst(which is my doctor's grandfather) which I find very thourough on history. Mr. Kenneth Roberts having ties in the northeast I believe enriches the stories and I have loved them so far. At this point I am on Rabble in Arms and shall continue as I can find the books. I must add that I have my son Austin thankfully studying creative writing at Miami University of Ohio which also spurs on my interests while he also enjoys history and learning.