Book Reviews

Book Review – The Great War: American Front by Harry Turtledove

This novel is the sequel to How Few Remain. In these novels, Turtledove supposes that the Confederacy won the Civil War and follows the course of history in a North American continent that is now divided into three separate countries.

World War I is beginning in this novel. Led by President Woodrow Wilson, the Confederate States of America (CSA), along with Canada have aligned themselves with Britain, France, and Japan. Theodore Roosevelt is the President of The United States of America (USA) and has formed an alliance with Germany. The USA prepares to fight a war on three fronts: both in the north and south, as well as in the Pacific Ocean, all the while protecting their harbors on the Atlantic Coast.

Unlike How Few Remain, Turtledove chooses here to create new characters and follow their lives rather than using well-known historical figures. In some ways, this was a much better and more interesting read, although I think a better merging of the two (similar to John Jakes’ style) would’ve worked best.

The main benefit of Turtledove’s style in this novel is that we get a deep view into so many different areas of the war and from very different angles and viewpoints. Neither side is completely right or wrong, so I never felt like I was being pushed to root for one side or the other. The novel covers only about the first year of the war, so at times it seems to plod along.

George Enos is a fisherman out of Boston. He is captured early in the novel by the CSA. The time he and his fellow shipmates serve in the detention camp gives the reader a good idea of how deep the hatred runs on both sides of the argument. Particularly disturbing is the treatment of his ship’s cook, a black man named Charlie White, receives, as well as how easily a CSA soldier slays one of the shipmen who mouths off.

Flora Hamburger is a Socialist Party worker in New York. With support from Abraham Lincoln, the Socialists have managed to attain great power in the United States. The Socialists are treated as communists for the most part, but their voices are being heard and they are influencing decisions in Washington. Their actions have not gone unnoticed in the CSA, particularly by the freed black men down there.

Flora’s family is about to become deeply involved in the war. Her sister is carrying a soldier’s child, though they were only engaged at the time he left to serve. She also has two younger brothers who are coming up on the age of conscription.

Nellie Semphroch and her daughter, Edna run a coffee house in occupied Washington DC. She is a spy who manages to send the information she gleans from CSA Officers who come into the coffee house. At the same time, she is trying to keep her daughter from making bad decisions in her life – and especially away from a CSA Officer: Jeb Stuart III.

Anne Colleton is a wealthy plantation owner and member of the aristocracy in the south. The freed slaves who work for her are not really treated all that much differently now than when they were slaves. Her house servant Scipio harbors a dangerous secret from her and manages to show nothing to her face. The freedmen are planning a Socialist uprising and one of the leaders is living right at her plantation.

Anne’s brother is one of the first soldiers to suffer the ill effects of the chlorine gas and survive, though he does not seem to be worth living.

Lucien Galtier is a Canadian farmer in the province of Quebec. Quebec is quickly occupied by USA forces and he tries to protect his family while at the same time staying loyal to his country.

Arthur McGregor is a Canadian farmer just north of the USA-Canadian border in Manitoba. He is nearly killed when he ventures into town one day to buy his daughter a birthday present. After a bombing, USA troops round up men to be executed until the bomber’s identity is disclosed. He is saved by the fact that his daughter is with him and one soldier shows a bit of compassion in not killing her father in front of her on her birthday.

Cincinnatus is a freed black in the CSA. One night he and his pregnant wife protect his former boss from USA soldiers. Because of this, he ends up working as a spy for the CSA in Covington, KY. He feeds them information about what is being unloaded from barges and the general destination but has no true loyalty. The only motivation is protecting his family and keeping them all alive.

Abner Dowling is the adjutant to General George Custer. Custer is the only historical figure we get any great detail on. He is painted as way too old and too stuck in the past to be commanding. Dowling has some sympathy for the General but realizes that his actions are costing a great many men their lives.

Reggie Bartlett is a CSA soldier trying to ward off invading forces in Big Lick, VA. He is with one of the units that first experiences the poisonous chlorine gas.

Jefferson and Emily Pinkard are a young couple in Birmingham, AL. Jefferson works in a steel factory and Emily takes a job in a munitions plant soon after the start of the war. Her job causes her to begin showing effects of poisoning. Things Jefferson has seen in the way people are treated at the steel factory make them both ripe to be swept up into the upcoming Red Revolution.

Colonel Stephen Ramsay and Captain Hiram Lincoln are two CSA soldiers who form an alliance with Indians to fight off the USA along the border between Kansas and the CSA state of Sequoyah.

Captain Irving Morrell is leading US troops south from Arizona into the CSA state of Sonora.

Seaman 1st Class Sam Carsten is with a navy battleship that invades Pearl Harbor to take it away from the British, then must defend the islands from attack by the Japanese.

Paul Mantarakis is a USA soldier of Greek origin. At the beginning of the novel, he is with Custer’s troops. After the Mormons stage an uprising in Utah and attempt to stop all rail traffic from going through their state, he is sent to help squelch the rebellion.

We are also given a great look into the beginning of the use of airplanes for both spying and some aerial bombardment.

With alternate history, I find I have to pay much more attention to the details than I would in one of Jakes’ or Michener’s books. With those stories, I have a general idea of how the story ends, but here the story has a totally different frame of reference.

I found all of the Socialist references in particular to be very interesting. Turtledove leaves us hanging at the end of the novel with the southern blacks – being supplied and egged on by the USA – staging their revolution.

Just another incentive to start the next novel.

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