Thursday, November 18, 2010

Noted Review: History Rewritten

DeMarce, Virginia. 1635: The Tangled Web. Riverdale, NY: Baen, 2009. 355 Pages. Paper. $16.00. (N).

Gingrich, Newt and William R. Fortschen. To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009. 345 Pages. Cloth. $26.99. (N)

I became a history major because I loved historical fiction. I was fascinated at how authors/historians recreated the past. And, to be totally honest, I was particularly intrigued how authors/historians rewrote the past as it "might have been" if just one thing had been changed.

Regular QBR readers will be familiar with the 1632 series by Eric Flint and his many co-authors, including one Virginia DeMarce.

I must say at the outset that many of the previous online reviewers have been far too harsh. Some editorial/content decisions are made by the publisher. Those cannot be the fault of the author, even if her name is on the front cover. The content of The Tangled Web is indeed tangled. It was intended to be. 

The introduction of a year-2000 West Virginia coal mining town called Grantville into the middle of Germany during the Thirty Years War is bound to have consequences. (Note the museum of the future on the front cover of this latest installment.) Characters, plots, subplots, and critical decisions get tangled up and eventually get woven together in the end.

I was happily surprised by the number of Lutherans in this set of stories and how religious issues influenced and guided politics. The music of composer John Leavitt (whose works are also regularly reviewed in QBR) gets a brief cameo (14).

How could one come up with a "photocopier" in 1635? Perhaps a visit to the Uptime Museum could inspire an unscrupulous political cartoonist. 

Read how a traveling salesman acts in response to his mother's unending requests for him to get married and settle down. Well, he does get married...

I read the 1632 series for the politics and to see how Lutheranism influences its environment. And I wonder how big the ripples of change will get!

Eric Flint's Afterword gives a long-awaited response to readers of this 15+ volume series who asked "in what order do I read all of these works?" While 1635: The Tangled Web stands on its own, and is a good lead-in to other stories by author Virginia DeMarce and her characters that show up in print and online editions of The Grantville Gazette (, the aforementioned Afterword would alone be worth the price of admission.

Author Newt Gingrich has collaborated with William Forstchen on several "alternate history" novels, including ones rewriting the battle of Gettysburg and its aftermath and a different way that the attack on Pearl Harbor could have happened. To Try Men's Souls is NOT a work of  "alternate history," but a fictional retelling of history at an important crossroads. Why? See the introduction (xiv). Sometimes the outcome of actual history is improbable enough.

The volume's title was inspired by Thomas Paine's essay, The American Crisis, reprinted on 337ff. He figures as a central character, one surprised by his fame because of the influence of his earlier work, Common Sense. He goes from the battlefield back to a capitol city under threat. And so he writes The American Crisis.

Washington himself figures prominently. He is shown as human, just, and on the edge of defeat, frustrated by the way others try to save themselves.

The most compelling character is a Lutheran, believe it or not, Jonathan (39, et al), educated at a Presbyterian college. That influence leads him to fight on the other side of the Revolution (a.k.a. The Presbyterian Parsons' War), than his parents and loyalist brother, with another brother caught in the middle.

Why were the Hessian mercenaries so caught off guard? There is another Lutheran influence in the plot of real history. Most Americans at that time did not celebrate Christmas. The Lutheran soldiers hired by the British did. And George Washington used that to his tactical advantage. He crossed the Delaware (likely sitting down) and saved the Revolution.

We loved To Try Men's Souls and can hardly wait to read the next installment, Valley Forge. Gingrich and Forstchen make a powerful team, writing convincing history and alternate history that will inspire Americans to rediscover who they are and should be.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.