Book Reviews

Book Review – American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold by Harry Turtledove

Set during the 1920s and 1930s, this novel follows events begun in the novel How Few Remain, through The Great War series, and in the previous novel in this series, American Empire: Blood & Iron.

What has been set up previously is the premise of the Confederacy winning the Civil War. They come to blows with the United States again twenty years following the end of that war, then again during the same time period as the First World War.

Following the defeat of the Confederacy and its allies (France and England) by the United States and Germany, this particular alternate history novel tracks various characters throughout the prosperity of the 1920s and into the stock-market crash, bank failures, and Great Depression.

What’s interesting is Turtledove’s take that all of these economic events would have happened regardless of the outcome of the First World War; regardless of what political party is in power in the United States; regardless of what is happening in the Confederacy. It seems that he has determined that certain events will occur in history, regardless of the changes surrounding them.

In some ways, this feels a bit like predetermination and is disconcerting. However, the familiarity with the historical events and setting of the times also makes it easier to follow his characters. Many of the same characters we’ve followed from The Great War series are back, although a few were lost during that series. Turtledove is not above killing off a character he’s had the reader invest in, and this novel is no different.

The Socialists are in power in the United States, and determined to take a softer tone with the defeated Confederacy while trying to maintain their grip over Canada and suppress a seemingly ever-present uprising by the Mormons in Utah. The Confederacy is dealing with the resurgence of a Nazi-like political party, the Freedom Party, and its leader who carries a grudge after being passed over for promotions during The Great War.

It’s amazing to see how well his characters actually whether the market crash and bank failures. Anne Colleton, the former plantation owner in South Carolina, pulls her money out of the market just in time. Sylvia Enos, the Boston war widow, pulls her money out of the bank the day before it goes under. Cincinnatus Driver, the black deliveryman in Des Moines passes up a good job offer for a man who goes bankrupt six weeks later. If there’s one thing that didn’t ring true it was this point when it felt like all of them were riding along pretty well during this time.

Another point that bothered me was his lack of historical characters. In How Few Remain, the characters Turtledove created interacted with historical figures in a very believable fashion. Here they are few and far between. Even then, Turtledove often does not come right out and tell us to whom he is referring. When a German Officer and wartime friend visits Colonel Irving Morrell in British Colombia, Canada, it is hinted that his aide is none other than Adolph Hitler. When Sylvia Enos tells her story to a ghostwriter, the writer seems to be Ernest Hemingway. Several times he talks about the “relative of the previous president who’s confined to a wheelchair.” Yet, Turtledove glosses over these instances, never telling us for sure to whom he is referring.

At one point one of the characters talks about the rise of the Freedom Party in the Confederacy being “like watching a train wreck.” This novel gives that feeling to the reader. I felt like I was watching the same train wreck through Turtledove’s characters, only I know the outcome. I know Turtledove is guiding history to the Second World War. It actually gave me knots in my stomach reading about the black characters in the Confederacy and thinking about what their destiny will be. For me to care about characters like that through six novels, I feel the author has done his job.

The Freedom Party’s tactics change throughout the novel as their strength grows. In the beginning, they seem like just another political party, albeit run by a man, Jake Featherston, who knows what to say and do to manipulate people to follow him. By the end, they have turned into a power not above throwing out the Constitution if it suits them.

Likewise, it is interesting to see the Democratic Party in the United States take a different path. To be the antithesis of the Socialist Party, they refuse to support any sort of public works projects or government aid to people to help bring the country out of its terrible economic times.

Picking up this book in the middle of the series can be a problem. I feel that I care more about these characters and what happens to them because I have spent so much time over six novels with them. Picking up the story in the middle probably would not have the same effect. Turtledove does give the history of the characters in a concise way, sometimes hitting the reader over the head with it at every turn. In the case of Sylvia Enos, he talks about her killing the man responsible for sinking her husband’s ship at every turn. In the case of Nellie Jacobs, he talks incessantly of her deep, dark secret of the death of a man at her hand during the war and her social history prior to respectability. In the case of Laura Secord, he hits the reader over the head with the fact that she is the descendent of a War of 1812 hero for the Canadians. This happens not only when she is the focus, but when other Canadians talk about the squashing of the Canadian uprising against the United States occupying forces.

Another problem I had with the novel was the fact that Turtledove sometime skips around in time, but I didn’t realize it until I was several paragraphs into the chapter. It would be easier reading if I would have known it right away rather than having to – at times – double back to the beginning after I realize we’re not picking up exactly at the end of the last chapter.

Likewise, after the Japanese bomb Los Angeles and have a confrontation with one aircraft carrier, any details of this seem to fizzle out along with the entire war between the United States. It almost felt like he felt that he had to include this conflict in the novel, but couldn’t figure out where to take it. Perhaps this will payoff in later novels of the series.

I really enjoyed American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold much more than the previous novel in the series, American Empire: Blood & Iron. Where it felt like Turtledove was hitting the reader over the head with the economic conditions in the Confederacy over and over again in the previous novel, here the story flows nicely and seems to make its point in a completely natural way. As the two countries head towards the seemingly inevitable war, Turtledove gives us people to care about, bringing the pain of the times very close indeed.

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