Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Review: The Fort

 I first heard about the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 about twenty years ago from Charles Bracelen Flood's outstanding book Rise and Fight Again: Perilous Times Along the Road to Independence
So I was looking forward to reading Bernard Cornwell's spin to this epic disaster in his historical novel, The Fort.
I wasn't disappointed.
However, a considerable number of raters on Amazon.com were.  Almost half of the folks who read the book, didn't like it (42%, or 92 out of 218 ratings).  This was one of the highest unsatisfactory ratings I've seen levelled against a Bernard Cornwell work.
Many of the less-than 4-star raters started their comment with:  "I'm a big fan of Bernard Cornwell, but..."
...And then they'd discuss what they didn't like about the book.  The two comments I saw the most were shallow character development, rambling narrative and non-exciting action.
I liked the author's spin on Penobscot, and give it a 4-star rating, but the low raters aren't entirely wrong.
I suspect the main problem with the story is with the subject matter itself.  True, the Penobscot Expedition held the title of the worst American naval disaster until the Day of Infamy on December 7th, 1941. 
However, unlike the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the disaster at Penobscot was entirely self-induced and ended "...not with a bang, but with a whimper."  There were no titanic battles, or do or die moments.  Instead, once the British relief force arrived, the Americans fled up the Penobscot River, scuttled their ships and trudged through the wilderness back to Massachusetts.
This was all thanks to the ineptitude of three men:
Yes, he of the "Midnight Ride" was court martialed for "unsoldierly like behavior." 
That's putting it mildly.  The Wikipedia entry considers most of the accusations against Paul Revere were exaggerated by his political enemies.  But as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I read Charles Bracelen Flood's non-fiction account (which makes this is a good example of not relying solely on Wikipedia) .  I recall his portrayal of Mr. Midnight Rider was about as unflattering as Bernard Cornwell's.
Yes, Paul Revere was exonerated--eventually--as the American War of Independence was winding down, while his post-Penobscot military career was virtually non-existent.
So overall, The Fort isn't a miss-your-bus-stop page-turner.  I found it more interesting than exciting, especially since I knew the outcome wasn't going to end well for the "Cause of Liberty."
Maybe the book would have been better received if it were written as a narrative non-fiction piece.  A major step in doing this would have been to edit-out the fictional characters, even the fetching Bethany Fletcher.  This would have been relatively easy since all their last names ended with "F."
While the Penobscot Expedition may not be the stuff of legends, it certainly presents a tantalizing, "what if the Americans were better led?" question.
Here, some wargamers attempt to defeat the British--or at least minimize the number of ships needing to be scuttled.
(Image from: Gonzo History Gaming--Salute 2015!)


commissarmoody said...

Thank you for the review. I have been debating on reading this one myself.

Ted Henkle said...

You're welcome! If you do read the book, I hope you enjoy it. It is what it is. :)