THE GLORIOUS CAUSE
By Jeff Shaara
Ballantine. 638 pp. $27.95 Jeff Shaara's novel of the American Revolution is the sequel to "Rise to Rebellion," which was based on the six years leading up to the conflict. The first book was written from the perspective of five principals: George Washington, John Adams, Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin and British commander Thomas Gage. "The Glorious Cause" uses a similar format, relating most events through the eyes of Washington, Nathaniel Greene, one of the general's most able proteges, and Franklin, busily serving as the rebels' chief negotiator in France. Because Gage has been dispatched back to England, the noble but unfortunate Gen. Charles Cornwallis is left to represent the enemy's point of view.
The story begins with nearly 20,000 British troops coming ashore in New York. "Combined with the great mass of naval power, it was the largest expedition the British military had ever assembled." Their forces included Hessian mercenaries, known for their brutality in battle. "Brutal or not, inhumane or not, this war might be won by the most efficient killers," Shaara reminds us, as if the final outcome were in doubt.
But since it is not in doubt -- since we know that through strategic brilliance, courage and occasionally just plain luck, Washington's ragtag band of rebels will overcome Britain's ostensibly superior power and change the course of history -- maintaining suspense needn't be the highest priority. One might reasonably assume that readers of fictional versions of real events aren't turning the pages to see what happens next. Rather, they are looking for history made lively and compelling by an imagination potent and creative enough to dispense with the layers of dust that have accumulated during the intervening centuries. Shaara's imagination seems up to the task, but his prose style is merely serviceable; hence his rendition is perhaps best described as workmanlike.
As he did in "Rise to Rebellion," Shaara devotes the first pages to a little guy who has no leading role to play in the drama that soon unfolds. He is a humble, unnamed Everyman who has left his wife and hearth to fish the waters of Gravesend Bay, N.Y. -- and it's no surprise when he encounters great misfortune at the hands of bayonet-wielding Hessians making their way to land. Some may frown at Shaara's introducing his tale with an anonymous character who is never seen or mentioned again, but for me, it seemed a sensible way to put a face on the type of men who became the foot soldiers of the Revolution, the militiamen and infantry who faced the redcoats and whose identities have faded with time.
Perhaps because the men whose perspectives shape the novel are far from the common lot, Shaara tries hard and does well at portraying the daily dilemmas ordinary people faced during the war. He shows deep sympathy for those colonists who seemed indifferent to the rebels' cause but in actuality simply may have been too caught up in staying alive and keeping food on the table. Their plight becomes even more significant late in the conflict, when Washington is forced to reflect on the difficulties of persuading the people of individual states to see their struggle as a national one. Shaara describes the general's problem in terms that continue to resonate today, as the United States considers waging war in Iraq:
"It was difficult to convince citizens who never saw a British soldier that they should send their food and their money and their men to some remote horror in some far-removed place."
Shaara convincingly shows that American apathy was as much an obstacle as French dithering, which Franklin worked hard to overcome. Fortunately for the rebels, the British helped balance things with their self-destructive arrogance. Their smug superiority, along with internecine politicking among officers of the British command, proves as valuable as ammunition to Washington's campaigns.
Some of Shaara's set pieces are more effective than others; of these I found his account of Molly "Pitcher" Hays's bravery at the Battle of Monmouth especially moving. I was struck by the curious absence of black soldiers, who by most accounts made up about 20 percent of Washington's army. Aside from a reference to a "veritable throng of Negro servants" laboring at a British soiree, blacks are missing in action. There is not even a mention of William Lee, the slave who attended Washington so closely during the war that he was known as "the black shadow." Having said that, I'll readily concede that the vast pageant of the American Revolution certainly contained too many individual tales to include in a single novel, even one more than 600 pages long. The stories Shaara has singled out to expand upon are told with steadfast and genuine respect. The result rarely rises above pedestrian prose but is sufficiently entertaining fare for whiling away an afternoon or two.