Alternate history is a genre situated somewhere between history, general fiction, and science fiction. Combining elements of the three, an author picks a pivotal point in history and asks what would have been different in the world had the outcome of that particular event not been what our history recorded. In the case of a series of novels by author Harry Turtledove, he’s taken a line of thinking that the Confederates won the Civil War and set up a separate, sovereign country. They have battled the United States on two occasions prior, and the two countries are now locked in a World War II-style struggle.
The Grapple picks up where its predecessor, Settling Accounts: Drive to the East left off. The Confederates, having pushed deep into the United States at Pittsburgh, are now being driven backward. As they retreat through their conquered territory in Ohio, it becomes obvious to just about everyone that something has gone terribly wrong with their battle plan. For those fighting the war in the United States, that is good news.
The fact that they are continually on the defensive in The Grapple, doesn’t stop their final solution of what to do with the Negroes that inhabit the Confederacy. Hitler-like President, Jake Featherston, blames the Negroes for all of the problems of the Confederacy, including the loss in the last war. Internment camps process Negroes and bury them in mass graves out in Texas.
Turtledove follows the same characters he’s been following all along, some of them for years and throughout many novels. Even with what he’s invested in a character, he is not above killing off a character either to further the story or to show the senselessness of the situation. For this reason, no one is safe and it does create an air of suspense as to who will survive. To compensate for characters he’s killed off in the past, Turtledove embraces previously peripheral characters as his new point-of-view characters. One of the best additions he’s made on that front is Jerry Dover, who was previously just the boss of the character Sciopio (a.k.a. Xerxes) at the Huntsman Lodge in Augusta, Georgia. On the other side, Michael Pound who was a gunner under General Morrell now has a command – and a point of view – of his own. Both of these characters are refreshing additions, adding much to the story and some new elements.
I also enjoyed Leonard O’Doull’s point of view as a doctor in what seemed like a MAS*H outfit. He really seems to have taken a page from the television series by the same name at times, or perhaps I am just showing the era which influenced me.
In the last few stories, it seemed as if Turtledove was going to just take the view that the Confederacy is completely patterned after Germany, both in the pre-war times and during World War II. The story did seem to be completly following the history of World War II in our time, complete with the extermination of a race by a cunning madman in power. Pittsburgh was Jake Featherston’s Stalingrad and it seemed as if the outcome was certain.
In The Grapple, Turtledove takes a bit of a different tact. What’s happening here as General Morrell drives troops from the United States deep into Confederate territory seems to be following more the course of the Civil War, although with much more advanced weaponry. Morrell seems to be copying Sherman’s March to the Sea as he cuts through the countryside on his way to Atlanta to cut out the rail junction at the heart of the Confederacy, much the same way it was done in the Civil War.
The variable coming into play is the development of “uranium bombs”. Both sides are in a race to complete this, knowing the other side is also at work. The United States initially had a jump on the Confederacy, although the Confederates seem to have created greater technology in the area of rockets. Would Turtledove give the Confederates the bomb first? Does U.S. President La Follette’s speech at the end of The Grapple mean they have a bomb ready to use?
My usual complaints against Turtledove are somewhat minimized in The Grapple. Yes, he’s repetitive, although I think maybe by now he’s heard some of the complaints. It doesn’t seem as bad as it’s been previously, although I was getting a little tired of certain points, such as Cincinnatus’ continual lamentation of what life was like for Negroes in the Confederacy and how he had a personal stake in hitting back at them. Yes, Turtledove drives the point home that every time Cincinnatus takes a truck behind enemy lines he’s got a bigger target on him than others do because of his skin, but after about the fourth time I was getting pretty tired of hearing about it. Sam Carsten’s skin is mentioned in passing a few times, but it didn’t seem like I was being hit over the head with it. Perhaps it was a faster pace of action that dwarfed many of these observations which had been made in the past.
The pace of the book does seem stepped up than previous stories. This might just be that the United States is on a rapid offensive throughout most of The Grapple, but overall I felt like the book moved along better than the past few in this timeline.
Another reason for the better pace of the book could be the fact that the focus is almost entirely on the battle between the United States and Confederacy. The Mormon uprising in Utah has ended, the Canadians seem quieter under their U.S. occupation, and the Japanese have surrendered the Sandwich Islands and Midway back to the United States. Has Turtledove hinted at another novel in the future with a conflict between a stronger Japan and whatever happens on the North American continent at the end of this story?
I am anxiously awaiting the next novel in this series and can’t believe I have to wait a whole year for it. I want to know what happened, and Turtledove managed to create a good deal of suspense in what was supposed to be a trilogy of novels (but has now been expanded). The Grapple is easily the strongest novel in this series of stories since Turtledove’s work depicting the last war between these two enemies, and for some reason, it does seem to read a bit better than I remember those.
I would not recommend anyone pick up this novel who hasn’t been following the storyline to this point, but for those who have, I don’t think you will be disappointed.
Previous book in the series (link): Settling Accounts: Drive to the East by Harry Turtledove
Next book in the series (link): Settling Accounts: In At The Death by Harry Turtledove