Sunday, May 16, 2010

Book review - To Try Men's Souls.

Received Newt Gringrich and William Forstchen's To Try Men's Souls for Christmas. This is a 336 page historical novel covering the Trenton campaign during the Revolutionary War. Unlike the pair's previous offerings, this book is not an alternate history. It is along the lines of Jeff Shaara's offerings and while good does not quite reach to his level. Nevertheless it is still a fine book.

The book follows four characters through the Continental Army's attack on the Hessian outpost at Trenton, New Jersey. Much of the narrative takes place on December 25th and 26th of 1776 although there are several flashbacks. Care must be taken to note the dates and locations that head each section.

Most of the flashbacks involve Thomas Paine and his writing of his pamphlet The Crisis. His wrestling within himself and doubts about what to write are the focus of his character. He is also at least partially intoxicated for most of the book. With the assistance of Dr. Benjamin Rush he finally gets the pamphlet into print just days before the campaign opens.

The second character the book follows is General George Washington. I actually found this to probably be the least interesting part of the book but it was well done. Washington has so much exposure that it is difficult to bring him to life without dropping into cliches. Gingrich and Forstchen make an admirable effort however and the result is a well done picture of a commander under the gun and out of time.

The third character is a well-drawn fictional member of the New Jersey militia from Trenton. This young man is dealing with some doubt but still believes what Thomas Paine has written. He is also struggling with his physical weaknesses as the march drags on and his body breaks down. Lastly, there is a terrible family conflict that he must face as the army attains victory. This young man could perhaps illustrate many members of the Continental Army.

The fourth character is perhaps a puzzling choice at first glance but is one that I truly enjoyed reading about. Colonel Johann Rall was the commander of the Hessian garrison at Trenton. He was a professional soldier who had been born and bred to the profession. I know little about him from history. In this book he emerges as a rigid man who demanded much of his men but tried to take care of them as well. He has the professional's disdain for the American army and is sick and tired of America in general. This isn't his war and he longs to return to Europe and the land and people he knows.

All in all To Try Men's Souls is well-written and is an enjoyable read. The narrative sticks to the historical facts while putting a human face on them. The story is interesting and flows well. Anyone interested in the founding of the United States would be well-served by reading this book.

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