In Miller’s historical novel, a young man is pulled into the Revolutionary War after his sibling is murdered.
In 1776, Josiah Hartford becomes a soldier “quite by accident” after his 16-year-old brother, Patrick, is killed by British soldiers invading Concord in the Massachusetts colony. He joins the Continental Army, bristling with a desire for revenge, and particularly distinguishes himself as a swordsman at Breed’s Hill. Josiah is a troubled man; he got a girl pregnant out of wedlock in Boston, and she subsequently died in childbirth. Later, both of his marriage proposals to another woman, Mercy Willingham, are summarily rejected. Meanwhile, his family is denounced as traitorous and sent to prison by his oldest friend, Hugo Chamberlain, a jealous rival who becomes a captain in the British Army. Josiah finds love again with another woman, Violet, but the relationship is fraught; she’s a sex worker with a checkered past—her mother and father were murdered by pirates, and she was sold into sexual slavery. Josiah is deeply drawn to her but also reluctant to fully commit to their relationship—a predicament depicted in blandly sentimental terms by author Miller, whose prose is earnest but anodyne: “The way Violet clung to him like she never wanted to let him go, the sweetness of her embrace when she gave herself to him, his own feelings of desire—these had a hold on him so strong that he wondered if anything could break it.”
Over the course of the novel, Miller displays a knowledge of the historical material that’s magisterial as he later presents an astute, as well as vivid, tableau of the war in New York, as well as the colony’s strategic significance. Also, his account of the role of Hessian mercenaries is rigorously researched, as is his treatment of the conditions of prisoners of war at the time. After Fort Washington is taken by the British, Josiah is captured and compelled to participate in a “savage, animalistic way of life” whose brutality the author portrays with a great deal of power. However, the book as whole is overly melodramatic; even the depiction of George Washington feels hyperbolic. Josiah is overawed when he first meets him: “He wondered if Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar had had this effect on people.” Likewise, dramatic speeches and declarations abound throughout the text, which feels like theatrical performance for a stage production, as when Josiah stands to his Hessian captors: “You crossed an ocean to fight in a war that has nothing to do with you. You butcher men who try to surrender. You loot and rape and burn. This country is going to swallow you up and spit you out, and you’ll never see your dear, civilized Fatherland again.” Furthermore, the plot is predictable, as it’s obvious from early on exactly how the novel will reach its dramatic crescendo and which two characters will be involved in it.
A historically rigorous portrayal of a time of conflict, but that founders as literary drama.
Pub Date: March 23, 2023
Page Count: 402
Publisher: Black Rose Writing
Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2022