25 April 2014

Book Review: The Fires of Pride

"As in the first part, The Fires of Pride combines human interest with detailed and highly believable descriptions of military operations, logistics and engineering."

Published on 23 JUL 2005 12:00am by Scott Parrino
  1. american civil war, background / research material

The Fires of Pride

It is 1863 and news from the Battle of Gettysburg seems to confirm that the North will eventually conquer the South and all that remains is time and a large amount of hard fighting and misery. In North Carolina, the collection of characters introduced in the first part of William Trotter’s epic saga of the American Civil War, The Sands of Pride, continue to wax and wane in fortunes. The women become more liberated and free – or bold and shameless, depending on viewpoint. People start to think about what the shape of post-war society will be like and what in particular will be the role of the slaves. Suspicion and ambition mingle with the everyday deprivations of wartime. Meanwhile, those charged with the actual fighting must balance the endless tedium of most duties with the extraordinary intensity of the actual fighting, an intensity which turns out to be addictive for some.

While the course of the war seems set, there is still the relentless grinding down of the rebels to manage. This is accomplished slowly and with great confusion. The nature of the North Carolina countryside means that many communities can hope to avoid being involved at all, while those that are drawn into the war will do anything they can to save what small part of their painfully accumulated possessions they can. While some remain honourable, the temptations to descend into acts of infamy and dishonesty in an atmosphere verging on anarchy prove too strong to resist for others. 

Readers who had the happy opportunity to enjoy The Sands of Pride will need no prompting to rush out for the second installment. As in the first part, The Fires of Pride combines human interest with detailed and highly believable descriptions of military operations, logistics and engineering. Of particular interest is the flight of the Hatteras, the ironclad hope of the South to which several hundred pages are devoted describing its construction and flares brightly in the war. Naval operations are again prominent, although the entertaining smuggling and blockade-running of the first part are not emphasised here. There is also not so much of Hobart-Hampton, one of the most interesting characters from the early part of the war. Instead, we have more of an exploration of heroism and fortune in war, especially in the person of Will Cushing, who seems to be both alter ego for the author and heroic inspiration. The testing of character in wartime is carefully balanced by the testing of character in domestic contexts, on both a personal level and also in terms of the ability to manage people effectively and with honour. For example, the renegade turned commander Jack Fairless and his irregulars, for example, are set as counterpoints for some of the incompetent generals on both sides whose venality and pusillanimity leads to death and horror for those they are charged with leading. Similarly, the careful and forward-thinking management of Mary Harper Sloane and her plantation is contrasted with the negligent mismanagement of people and nature by others on both sides of the divide.

While history remains Trotter’s guiding star, there are a few excursions from the nitty-gritty of life which some readers are likely to find defuses the tension somewhat. The description of the birth of a batch of turtles is both heartwarming and also has the benefit of being based in an accurate sense of place. However, some other episodes, notably a trip to Africa to learn more of Bonaparte Reubens, seem out of place. This is a matter of taste, of course but one of the qualities of superior historical fiction is the consistency of pace and the immersion of the reader in place and time. Here, some will judge that the boundary separating a solid and believable world from flights of fancy has been crossed once or twice too often. However, these are comparatively minor flaws and, besides, many people will know the course of the war so well that a straight retelling might cause the attention to lapse. 

Infused throughout by Trotter’s dry wit, this is a splendid, rambunctious, colorful, vivid and constantly entertaining romp through a compelling period of history. Perhaps not all of human life is here but a great deal of it at its best and its worst certainly is.

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.