David Nevin,
(Forge, 2012)

After watching the spectacular HBO mini-series adaptation of David McCullough's John Adams, I thought how interesting it would be to see a similar take on the War of 1812, since it's a relatively unknown/forgotten war (especially if you had a distracted football coach teach U.S. history ... thanks, public education). What a pleasant surprise to discover that the late David Nevin had already written such a treatment in 1996! (This review of 1812 is based on the first trade paperback edition released in January 2012.)

While this book is technically historical fiction, the vast majority of the content is inspired by or mired in facts. (For the historical accuracy sticklers, the author provides an afterword that lists the few liberties he took.) Nevin uses the historical framework as the skeletal structure and fleshes out the story with passion -- political, military and even some of the physical variety). The War of 1812 is told through three couples: James and Dolley Madison, Andrew and Rachel Jackson, and Winfield Scott and Sally McQuirk (the only fictional character). These characters are treated with respect while being injected with personality traits, including wonderful flaws that provide much more context as to how particular situations must have gone down.

The female characters may not have held as much political or social power as the men, but Nevin shows how instrumental Dolley, Rachel and Sally were to the perseverance of three American leaders. The counsel and support these women offered helped the nation grow from a fledgling seaboard country to a truly continental nation. Andrew Jackson's relationship with and dependence upon Rachel is the most interesting, admittedly because it has the juiciest ingredients: divorce, adultery, rage and unconditional love and devotion. It's a shame Nevin didn't write a sequel to 1812 that explores Andrew Jackson's post-war political career -- doubtless that would have been a captivating story.

One invigorating aspect of Nevin's portrayal of Jackson is his enthusiastic dream of a continental United States. It's surprisingly refreshing to see the dream of expanding America in an optimistic light. So often the early days of America's growth are portrayed "warts and all," with the warts given the most exposure. Nevin acknowledges the struggles between Native Americans, American pioneers and European factions, but he's fair in portraying a sample of the atrocities committed by every side. The correct approach towards westward expansion couldn't have been as clear-cut to handle as contemporary historical hindsight seems to claim. The largest hot topic of slavery is tackled as well, including a unique perspective offered from a White House slave.

The most praiseworthy aspect of 1812 is that it will fuel an interest in the actual event. While reading this novel, I frequently asked myself, "Did that really happen...?" and off to the Internet I would go (which often lead to tangential explorations of the historical figures' lives). Unless you're already an American history expert, this book should be an engrossing and entertaining account of what might have (or probably) happened in-between what actually happened.

book review by
C. Nathan Coyle

7 July 2012

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