24 April 2014

Book Review: Sands of Pride

John Walsh offers his two cents on Will Trotter's epic novel about the American Civil.

Published on 14 MAY 2005 12:00am by Scott Parrino
  1. american civil war

From the baleful, beetling shoreline of Cape Fear to the streets of Wilmington and Norfolk, from the danger of Yankee invasion to the threat of Yellow Fever, from the high excitement of blockade running to the slow and grinding misery of hunger and deprivation, The Sands of Pride lays out the events of the first years of the American Civil War. A wide cast of characters, both historical and created, undergoes a huge variety of experiences about the war and their responses range from the glorious to the decidedly inglorious. This is the first part of a work of epic scale that will delight as well as entertain.

In Britain, at least, we were taught in school that the American Civil War was fought because of slavery. On the northern side were the abolitionists (good guys but rather austere) who wanted to free the slaves and on the southern side were the rebels who wanted to keep slaves, maintained moustaches and were possibly French speakers. This caricature has evolved to reveal the more complex issues of the war which is instead considered to result from the struggle of the north either to impose some laws or control over the freedom loving southerners or to rescue them from their desperate ignorance, based on one’s perspective. In The Sands of Pride, slavery is considered to be essentially a pretext for war and there are various attempts to balance the varying degrees of bondage and slavery in which people found themselves and the varying attitudes of people on both sides towards black people. Perhaps unfortunately, despite the determined attempts to be fair to all people involved, the free black characters all seem to be rather disreputable compared to their enslaved counterparts. This general even-handedness has the effect that it is difficult to be sure quite why the war was necessary at all and certainly why people would sustain it for so long.

The role of women is also considered and treated again in a very even-handed way. The curse of sexual ignorance is raised and the impact of war and social disorder upon marital relations is examined through various different examples. Generally, the women flourish in the diminishing of the restraints placed upon their behaviour. They are able to achieve more self-confidence and general competence through exposure to work outside the house (and also inside the house), although they also accept their own vulnerabilities. Honest wives are counterbalanced by the seemingly larger than life figure of Belle O’Neal, the Confederate spy and Mata Hari who managed to obtain secrets from a large number of Union political and military leaders through providing sexual favours. There is enough of the treatment of the lives of non-combatants to make the military incidents starker and more enthralling. There are also several examples of contrast between the lots of official and unofficial combatants, including the blockade runners and the bushwhackers. These are handled in a sophisticated and sympathetic manner and the needs and desires of the common people are never overwrought by ideology or military bravado.

Readers will also be interested in the degree of historical accuracy in the book. The details of the war all seem perfectly believable to me, although I am not an expert in the American Civil War. The book certainly does provide an entirely believable recreation of what the reality of war was like for a wide range of combatants. Mr. Trotter is particularly good at describing the engineering and technology of war and the forces that drove change during the war. The creation or, more accurately, the recreation of the naval ram, the evolution of different forms of artillery and the organisation of the logistical aspect of war are all among the many innovations examined and explained. Readers interested in the American Civil War will be particularly well served by this book and that is no surprise as the author is a noted military historian, inter alia, who includes among his achievements a three part work on the War in North Carolina. For those of us less well-informed, it would have been helpful if some of the many off-canvas events could have been explained in a sentence or two. Large battles such as Bull Run and Antietam are noted to have occurred without a hint as to who won or what the relevance might be on the smaller stage of North Carolina. Nevertheless, Trotter manages to keep his characters and events on a loose but well-managed rein as they traverse the ravages of war and misfortune across land and ocean.

However, no matter how magisterial Trotter’s expertise in the war in the Carolinas, his knowledge of the geography of the British Isles leaves something to be desired and an excursion by some characters there entails their following a rather weird itinerary. The book would also have taken the next step towards the really exceptional examples of historical fiction if it could have more fully entered the consciousness of the characters and displayed the extent to which they are conditioned by popular and indeed high-brow culture. Like people in the modern world, the people of the past lived in societies greatly influenced by contemporary song, theatre, literature, and political events and much of their discourse was conditioned by these institutions. We rarely get much of this interior life in these characters even though, as is made clear, reading and music were important component parts of social life. Some of the characters are a little difficult to tell apart as many of the men enter into the role of honourable soldier doing the best he can under the circumstances while the more colourful villains remain more vividly in the memory. Cyrus Bone and Bonaparte Reubens are fine creations and slightly overshadow historical figures such as Colonel Lamb and William Cushing, although Augustus Hobart-Hampden and Zebulon Vance are examples of real life people powerfully brought to literary life.

In all, The Sands of Pride is an excellent and exciting telling of a series of fascinating stories told with admirable clarity and skill by a master of the material. I look forward to reading the second part of the saga with eagerness and would certainly recommend this book to all readers. Bear in mind that, despite what the book cover suggests, this is not a complete novel, since the action ends abruptly and, almost to the very end of the more than 750 pages, new characters are being introduced and their plotlines established.

About the Author

The author skulks in Bangkok in the building from which a famous general election victory has just been plotted. When not playing games or teaching, he spends his time writing reviews and articles about a wide range of subjects, as well as attempting to maintain a family life with a wife and daughter becoming dangerously obsessed with Pop Star Academy. He wishes all readers a Happy and Prosperous Year of the Rooster.