by Marcia Allen, Collection Development
Though it was published some fifteen years ago, Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea has remained a terrific account of 19th century whaling adventures, complete with day-to-day details of the hardship, cannibalism and the mayhem caused by a violent sperm whale. In fact, Philbrick’s account of the true tale that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick netted the National Book Award that year for the quality of its dramatic recreation of that period in history. That was but one bestselling historical account that Philbrick produced. In 2007, he released yet another stirring tale, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. Steeped in violence and treacherous relationships, this one presents an account of early colonization that is much more realistic than what some histories would have us believe. This book, too, earned widespread attention for readers around the world, was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and made the New York Times Book Review top ten of the year.
If you consider Philbrick one of your favorite nonfiction authors as I do, you’ll love his latest account that just came out this May. Valiant Ambition traces the events of the Revolutionary War with the author’s usual candor and painstaking research, and what a story it is. Here’s what you might like about the book:
First of all, Benedict Arnold is one of the key players. Long considered a traitor and unscrupulous human being, Arnold was initially one of the better generals under Washington’s command. He was a courageous fighter and a seasoned combat veteran who strongly believed in the American cause. He was the victim of political maneuverings that he could not stomach, and he came to resent being passed over for the promotions which he deserved. Thus, Philbrick’s Arnold is a flawed but skilled commander who could not accept the deceit of those in power.
Obviously, George Washington is the leading figure in the book, but the image of the dignified and courageous leader that history has often portrayed him is absent, at least in the early part of the book. At first an unseasoned commander, Washington made horrendous mistakes in leadership that could have easily cost the American forces the war. In fact, he once intercepted a letter, not intended for his eyes, in which one American leader was highly critical of his botched combat tactics.
There is the also the added drama of accounts of the many witnesses that brings the battles to life. Included, for example, is John Greenwood’s account of the siege of Trenton during which he saw the horse pulling the Americans’ only artillery struck by a six-pound cannonball. Greenwood also tells of the panic when the Americans realized their soaked weapons would not fire, so they were forced to mount a bayonet charge against the trained Hessians they feared so much.
In addition, there is this intriguing playing out of strategy throughout the book. We learn, for example, that British General Howe didn’t really want to engage the American forces in battle in the early days of the war. Because of the inexperience, the high death rates, and the heavy losses of cannons and cannonballs, the American cause was viewed as a failure from the beginning. Howe felt that all he had to do was wait for the inevitable. We discover that Washington learned to focus on maneuverings that were the least expected. One prime example was his re-taking of Princeton. That operation succeeded because he led his troops at night to the rear of the British forces, only to attack on slippery, frozen fields at the break of day.
What makes this book as much a resounding success as the other Philbrick books is its attention to the way events and personalities really were. Philbrick is a master of research, (see the 28 pages of his bibliography), and this vivid tale gives us the personality flaws, the glaring mistakes, and the horrors of that long ago war. Magnificent reading!