Our book today is 1812, a meaty, fantastic 1996 historical novel by David Nevin, who wrote a string of first-rate books in the fifteen years before his death in 2011. 1812 is the dramatic story of fledgling America’s second fight with the British Empire, and it centers on President James Madison and his strong-willed wife Dolley, who resisted the dire option of war for as long as they could and then were forced to flee the presidential mansion and watch helplessly as it was burned by the British (Madison mentally notes that such things aren’t done in ‘civilized’ warfare and wonders if its a harbinger of war’s future shape). Nevin did a mountain of research on all his characters but especially on the Madisons – he captures Dolley’s impossible stubbornness and irritating bravery, and he’s especially good at channelling the weird, almost otherworldly side little James Madison so often displayed. The scene where an arrogant Daniel Webster confronts the President in his sickbed is a good example – it reads like typical historical fiction artifice, but it’s actually a very good representation of the almost-finished, almost-Ciceronian way Madison talked when his dander was up:
“Do not come to criticize me, sir, with your hands black with the tars of Federalism. Do no prate cheap Federalist doctrine blind as the snows of New England. Haven’t you yet learned there’s more to this country than your parochial little corner? Don’t dare to criticize me, sir, when Federalists have done all they could to hobble their nation and cripple it in war …
“It’s your people who undermine their country, who encourage its enemies, who supply the very ships that blockade us – curs licking the book that kicks them, sir! – your governors who refuse their duty, your militia who hide behind governors’ skirts, your courts that connive with venal young men to defraud the government with false enlistments, your bankers who squat on their money like hens on their eggs, your ministers who cry from their pulpits of the devil’s work when young Americans are dying for lack of support – oh, no, sir, do not dare preach to me, do not dare! Now begone, sir! This instant, sir!”
The Madisons share Nevin’s stage with a sprawling cast of characters, many of whom – especially Andrew Jackson, of course (and my favorite in this novel, “Frank” Key) – will be familiar to history buffs. Since Nevin sets himself the task of dramatizing the whole war, his story ranges from the dining rooms of Washington City to the shot-swept decks of warships at sea – to the Niagara frontier in 1814, where we meet Winfield Scott not as the old and slightly ridiculous figure who would be so overcome by the Civil War a whole generation from now but rather in his prime, surveying the men he’ll lead into pitched battle against the British:
They were beautiful, that was the only word for it – three thousand men marching with all the snap and precision of hardened veterans, going through their paces for the last time at Flint Hill. Brigadier General Winfield Scott stole a look at General Brown – hell, yes, the General was impressed. He’d never seen anything like this. As if in confirmation, Brown turned and threw up his fist in a warrior’s gesture.
It was a brilliant day, sun blazing, cool, winy air fresh and tangy. Glad-to-be-alive weather. Scott’s throat was raw from shouting commands as he wheeled his big roan gelding about for each new maneuver. A big man needs a big horse, and the roan he called Rusty was just right, a soldier’s horse that loved the drum and danced when he heard it.
I can’t recommend 1812 strongly enough to fans of historical fiction. Nevin’s books are some of the only ones from roughly his publishing period that I consistently re-read (Max Byrd and of course Steven Pressfield also come to mind) – and every time I do, I wish he were still around to write more.
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