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Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

N.C. Wyeth, Illustration from “The Last of the Mohicans”

Regular friends of the decanter will recall my mentioning a few posts ago how long-time swiller Old Dominion Tory had very kindly sent along to Ol’ Robbo a set of novels by historian Allan W. Eckert about Robbo’s beloved historickal theme of the struggles between France and Britain in Colonial North America?  For some reason, I had got it into my tiny little braims that these books constituted essays in historickal fiction.

Whelp, since then I have read Wilderness Empire, and I see that I was mistaken in that notion.  These books are meant to be actual history, not fictional history, albeit they are written in what the author calls “narrative” form.  Indeed, they are peppered throughout (most effectively) with quotations from various letters, journals, and despatches, and in his preface the author insists that every one of his characterizations of, for example, an emotion or a mannerism or a physical appearance, is absolutely based on contemporary documentation.

Wilderness Empire covers the period roughly from the rival efforts by the French and British to militarize the Ohio Valley in the early 1750’s up  to the fall of Montreal in 1760, although because the author chooses to go with a character-based narrative, roots are sent out further back than this (for example, covering the births and early yoots of characters such as Sir William Johnson and Chief Pontiac).

As I say, this is a character-based story.  Eckert dances around between points of view, telling the story through the eyes of multiple characters, from Johnson and Pontiac mentioned above, all the way to that of the pregnant wife of one of the members of the Virginia Militia attached to Braddock’s Army who follows her husband on the mission to take Fort Duquesne.

It’s an interesting approach, and it seems to me that it has both advantages and disadvantages.  The main advantage, assuming (as I do) that Eckert is sincere in his authenticity, is that one gets a real on-the-ground feel for both the given situations and how the people involved react to them.  Also, it’s useful to get a fresh perspective on the big actions.  (I thought his description of the Battle of Lake George was very good.)  The main disadvantage is that this same on-the-ground approach seems, in my opinion, to distort the overall historickal balance somewhat.  As I mention, Eckert focuses heavily on Sir William Johnson.   This is well and good so far as Johnson goes, and in some sense is quite justified, but I think it gives short-shrift to other important characters and events outside his immediate ken.  For example, Wolfe’s capture of Louisburg in 1758 only gets a couple paragraphs, and his capture of Quebec the next year only rates a few pages.  Furthermore, the fact that by the mid-18th Century New France is being destroyed from within by ruinous greed on the part of its rulers never gets mention until way late in the narrative.  In this sense, especially as the author devotes a great deal of ink to detailing Johnson’s various counsel meetings with his Iroquois allies, I think a more general approach like that of Francis Parkman (whom Eckert follows in general interpretation and cites frequently) is maybe the better one.

Which is not to say that I dislike the Eckert book, as I am perfectly willing to embrace the power of “and”.  Indeed, I’ve already scampered off to The Conquerors, the next novel in the series which basically covers Pontiac’s Rebellion.

Two other things I would mention with respect to what you’ll find in Eckert’s Wilderness Empire which you won’t find in Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe, that section of his massive history which roughly covers the same time frame:  First, Eckert seems to be quite taken with Sir William Johnson’s, er, carnal appetites.  (Basically, he liked anything in a skirt – or preferably out of it.)  Second, Eckert provides extremely graphic and detailed descriptions of Indian tortures and cannibalism (including the fate of that pregnant soldier’s wife I mention above).  I would not recommend reading his books either during or just after a meal.  I suppose that’s the difference between a professor writing in the late 1960’s and a Boston Brahmin writing a hundred-odd years earlier.

All in all, though, a valuable addition to Ol’ Robbo’s library and I thank ODT once again for sending them along.  A glass of wine with you, Sir!


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December 2017