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Monday, September 8, 2008

Nor The Battle to the Strong reviewed by Gary Carden

Nor The Battle to the Strong by Charles F. Price
Savannah: Fredric C. Beil. Publisher – 2008
$25. 95 – 447 pages

Nor Jacket





I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, not yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.
- Ecclesiastes; 9: 11-12

For most of us, the historic struggle for American independence has been elegantly embalmed in tasteful rhetoric and imagery: Washington at Valley Forge; The Surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown; the numerous statues of “Mad” Anthony Wayne – all depicted with grandiose posturing and melodrama. Such is not the case with Charles F. Price’s latest novel, Nor the Battle to the Strong – an imposing chronicle of General Nathanael Greene’s 1781 campaign through Virginia and the Carolinas. Price literally brings this elusive chapter of the Revolutionary War down to earth.

Historically, both the conflicts and the personalities depicted in Nor The Battle to the Strong have been pushed to the background of textbooks and nearly forgotten, their significance reduced to footnotes and postscripts to grander and more imposing events. However, for a brief, shining moment, Nathanael Greene hung on the cusp of fame – stood with George Washington and Lafayette as one of the Nation’s most capable military leaders. Then, came the summer of 1781 and the battle of Eutaw Springs.

From the first page, Nor The Battle to The Strong reflects the author’s impressive research. The reader is quickly immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of a rag-tag encampment composed of demoralized soldiers, often accompanied by wives and children. Many are former farmers or reluctant conscripts and the majority of them have neither weapons nor uniforms. Further, they seem to be at the mercy of drunken, inept or brutal officers who march them in meaningless circles. This is a regiment of the Continental Army of the United States.

The action of this novel is seen through the eyes of two remarkable characters: General Nathanael Greene and private James Johnson. Alternately, we view the action from high and low: Greene’s lofty perch from which he plots the “chess of war,” and then through the astonished eyes of “wee Jamie,” a runaway indentured servant who has joined the Continental army, believing it represents safety – a refuge for him and his sister, Libby. While Greene writes effusive letters to politicians and fellow officers plots campaign strategy and consults with his staff, young Jamie learns the art of butchery and pretends Libby is his wife so that his companions will not pursue her as a sexual companion. Greene envies the dash and glamour of his peers, ponders his lapsed religion (Quakers do not engage in warfare), and yearns for “a place in history;” Jamie devises a plan to “elevate himself” by becoming a member of the First Dragoons.

What then, do these two men have in common? At the crux of Price’s novel is a paradox. When Jamie learns that he may well be the direct descendant of a legendary warrior, the Scottish “Wee John, the Crowner’s son,” he begins to dream of a heroic encounter – an event that will carve his name in the family history. General Greene dares to dream of honor, fame and position. For both men, the battle of Eutaw Springs represents a predestined goal. However, for both, the battle will bring painful revelations.

Nor The Battle to The Strong is filled with characters that are locked in a great struggle to create a nation; yet all of them have a “hidden agenda.” The struggle for American Independence is a means to an end - personal glory. The irony of their travail may be this: regardless of the success or failure of their personal quests, they all (inadvertently, perhaps) contribute to the greater good: the creation of this country.

This novel is packed with the names of remarkable men who live on in the names of our cities and counties: Sumner (two of them), Lee, Washington, Hampton, Henderson, Blunt, Marion and Pickens – all emerge as vibrant and flawed beings who played a part in the shaping of our history. Especially memorable (and tragic) is “Light Horse Harry Lee.”

However, the real power of this novel resides in the beauty of the writing. Price’s descriptive passages are memorable. The serene beauty of the march by night on the eve of the battle stands in sharp contrast to the horrendous carnage of the battle and Jamie’s daunting ride through the British lines. The book bristles with vivid characters, including a defrocked Methodist preacher who has the ability to make people “bark like a flock of spaniels, foam at the mouth and pop their teeth;” a man who sleeps with a pig and a horse named Jesus.

There is much more. It will have to suffice to mention one detail: Wee Jamie falls in love, and true to the family prophecy, he lives to find a sassy, heavily armed girl named Agnes who waits for him in Burke County.

0 comments:

4 comments:

  1. Shortly after I posted this review, Charles Price contacted me. He said that although "Nor the Battle to the Strong" was on Amazon, there were no supportive reviews/blurbs from people who had read and found merit in his novel. I agreed to post a review and it is there now. It looks a bit lonely. Frankly, I feel that the members of this blog should support Charles by posting a review on Amazon. Not only is Charles one of our own, he is a gifted novelist. When I look at the generous list of reviews under the listing of other writers, and then ponder the paucity of Charles Price's endorsements, I feel obligated to ask you to do something about it.
    Gary

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  2. “Time and chance happens to them all.....”

    Historians have documented extensively the most impressive battles and heroic exploits of the American Revolution, but alongside the best-known military leaders, thousands of lesser mortals and their families lived out personal dreams and contributed mightily to the creation of a new country.

    This superb historical novel presents General Nathanael Greene and Private James Johnson as their lives in a regiment of the Continental Army lead to the 1781 Battle of Eutaw Springs in South Carolina where fate brings, among the carnage, painful personal realizations for both men.

    Price’s novel is historically and culturally accurate, and his writing is superb as always. (Check out his other marvelous books.) The characters are engaging; the settings are powerful with both beauty and tragedy; and the overall story brings to the reader a deeper understanding of the birth of our great nation and the lives of people who, against great odds, created it.

    Highly recommended!

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  3. I believe the figures of the revolutionary war have always been rather vague to many of us, unlike those of the more recent Civil War. It’s hard to picture the founding fathers as flesh & blood human beings rather than static images on coins & currency. The common soldier is even more obscure. Charles Price is certainly a respected historian & from Gary’s review this sounds like a novel that is also artfully crafted. I look forward to reading this & gaining a better perspective on an era that shaped our destiny. Reviews by Robert Morgan, Ron Rash & others have been equally enthusiastic. In my opinion the south still produces the best writers in the country & they deserve our support. Otherwise we leave our legacy in the hands of people who paint our culture in the trite stereotypes of “The Beverly Hillbillies” or “Appalachian Emergency Room”.

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  4. I have not yet read Charles' book, but I've heard such good things about all his books and I'm sure this one will be terrific. I hope all who have read it will got to
    Amazon and give him a review.
    Do our viewers read books by local authors? I'd like to hear from those who do and what you think.

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