To Try Men’s Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom
By Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen
(Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 345 Pages, $26.99)
I did not know until I took this book up that political polymath Newt Gingrich, in addition to his full schedule of public policy participation and his omnipresence on cable chat shows, also was a principal in a factory operation that churns out what is popularly known as “alternative history.”
Sometimes known as “what-if history,” alternative history likes to change significant details in a well-known event and then speculate on how the outcome would have been changed — what if Pickett’s division had not charged at Gettysburg; that sort of thing. It’s all good fun and does no real harm; but given how hard it is to tell a straight historical tale one wonders about the lasting value of such enterprises.
Nevertheless, Gingrich, with North Carolina college historian William R. Forstchen and a staff of researchers, has had a good run with two series of such histories: one a two-book look at the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the other a three-volume “re-envisioning” (the publisher’s description) of the Civil War.
To Try Men’s Souls is the first attempt by the Gingrich-Forstchen brand at straight fiction, but at first reading it seems to bear very little on either George Washington the man or the broader story
of the American War of Independence. Washington the man is scarcely more than a statue with anxiety issues and the ambivalence of the American population — part patriot, part loyalist, part -indifferent — is touched on only in passing. It turns out that the cover illustration (Emanuel Leutze’s iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware) tells us better than the title what the book is all about: the dramatic surprise attack on the Hessians camped in Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas Day, 1777.
To their credit, Gingrich and Forstchen advise readers that if they want a serious account of Washington’s crucial victory they would be better advised to read either David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing or Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington. But the authors add they were initially inspired to write their novel after seeing the truly splendid film on Washington at Valley Forge at the newly opened Mount Vernon visitors’ center. They are on sure grounds here, for the new center is well worth exploring even if you have been there in years past. And the film portrayal (which actually simulates snow falling on the audience) with its special effects is worth the tour all by itself.
And suddenly I understood what Gingrich and Forstchen were up to: they were producing what used to be called a “Henty Boy’s Own” adventure. George A. Henty was a 19th-century British journalist and novelist who penned 122 adventure yarns that featured young men of sterling character who played vital roles in great historical events. He also produced a rash of short stories that appeared in two popular newspapers aimed at impressionable boys: The Boy’s Own Paper and Union Jack.
Like the Horatio Alger genre of the same turn-of-the-century period, Henty’s stories were based on solid factual dramatic histories but featured brave, resourceful, honest lads with plenty of “pluck” who played pivotal roles in helping legendary figures win the day. The books were equally popular in the United States and throughout the British Empire for generations. No less figures than Winston Churchill and John Foster Dulles credited Henty’s brave boys (girls played an occasional, usually supporting, role) with being early inspirations.
I confess that I devoured an older uncle’s stash of Henty titles including, if memory serves, In the Heart of the Rockies; With Lee in Virginia; Friends Though Divided: A Tale of the Civil War; and perhaps on point, True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence. Not surprising, it turns out Forstchen got his start as a history writer at that staple of American lad-literature, Boys’ Life magazine.
SO WHAT WE HAVE HERE is 21st-century Henty, purple prose, plucky lads, and all. Our hero, it should not surprise, is not Washington, who serves as the great figure who needs our hero’s heroic help. Rather it is Private Jonathan van Dorn, who with his chum (such sidekicks are obligatory) Peter Wellsley is a New Jersey militiaman who serves as the crucial guide to lead the desperate Patriot troops through the fierce winter night to reach Trenton in time to surprise the somnolent Hessian garrison.
The requisite tension is provided by a mix of historical fact and creative drama. Both young men are ashamed at the less-than-staunch performance of the New Jersey troops in earlier battles; indeed many had accepted British offers of amnesty and had deserted. Young van Dorn is further conflicted because he worries about going into his hometown of Trenton, where his family is divided in its loyalties. Moreover, he has a debilitating lung infection that threatens his very life and he should by rights stay in his miserable hovel in Valley Forge along with roughly 2,000 other sick and malnourished soldiers. But does he malinger when General Washington needs him most? Silly question.
If you have a preteen boy around who likes history stories, this might be a worthwhile investment. But there is not much here for a serious consumer of Revolutionary War history. The book focuses solely on the daring attack on Trenton on December 26 but pays no attention at all to the equally significant and daring “Nine Days Wonder” campaign that followed which saw Washington outmaneuver Lord Cornwallis at Trenton later and then defeat yet another British force at Princeton, a campaign that in its dramatic entirety was far more crucial than the Trenton victory alone in changing the course of the war.
In passing it does have to be noted that in the authors’ attempts to inject fictional drama to their story they commit some solecisms that jar the reader. One howler, for example, is the portrayal of the Hessian colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall playing checkers with a Mr. Potts, the name of the patriot farmer whose house at Valley Forge was Washington’s home and headquarters. By all accounts Rall, who spoke no English and despised Americans generally, was dead drunk at that critical moment while the Americans were trudging toward Trenton.
Henty would not have made such a mistake.