Saturday, June 18, 2016

The War That Made America

I am sure the American War of Independence was depicted in our British history books in a very different light from that in which it was reported to American pupils in theirs.  

Whatever the different opinions, the outcome of this war was the same - the eventual emergence of the independent United States of America.

One might say this was the most important war Americans ever fought, and yet in literature it has been overshadowed by the numerous volumes dealing with the Civil War, America's bloodiest war.   I know so little about either.  

'Time to find out a bit more than the bare bones I recall' I thought.  So I've recently finished reading 'Through A Howling Wilderness', by Thomas A. Desjardin.   This is an account of Benedict Arnold's campaign to lead an army through the wilds of Maine towards Québec City, and enlist the disgruntled French residents in overthrowing the British in Québec and eventually all Canada.  Though the book is written for adults, I'd recommend it for reading by a literate middle grade history buff - and there are many of those.

We now live in the province of Québec, and last year drove from north of Montréal to Bar Harbor, Maine.  Once we had left the corrugated streets of Montréal behind, we travelled mile after mile of smooth blacktop, our only view on either side nothing but tall trees or massive cliffs.  As our car climbed and descended the long, steep hills it was easy to imagine the struggles faced by that motley crew of not so long ago.

No modern highway eased their path.  Instead the army of men following Benedict Arnold’s push to Québec City had to fight their way through the dense undergrowth, relying on the accuracy of their scouts and native pathways to lead them to their goal. They faced miserable rain, deep snow, and fierce cold in winter.   Summer was plagued by mosquitoes black flies, and humid heat.  Hunger was a constant, whether from lost or spoiled provisions or barren surroundings.  Attacks from some native, tribes, drunkenness, deserters, and various other misfortunes dogged the expedition.  In the end, despite their determination, they failed to capture Québec City.  

Yet, they had come so close to success. 

Desjardin's work leads me to believe Benedict Arnold was one of the ablest commanders ever to lead an American force.  So why is he portrayed in American history books as a traitor? Here is an ideal opportunity for teachers to start a junior debating club over his reasons for decamping to London; once a reader learns why Colonel Arnold made the decision he did, then he may form an opinion on whether or not that decision was justified.

Dejardin’s work focuses entirely on the viewpoint of those Americans who were bent on independence.  By contrast, in 'Johnny Tremain' Esther Forbes tries to show the reasoning of both those who wanted independence, and the loyalists.

A realistic, entertaining historical fiction story for middle graders, with a little personal mystery and romance for Johnny thrown in, it is a lighter book, and will appeal more to younger readers.

Either of these books could make excellent material for teachers to encourage a  lively classroom discussion on the emergence of the United States of America, with any number of essay possibilities arising. Towards the end of term, as the long summer vacation approaches, it would be fun to combine history with drama and stage a re-enactment of one of the battles.  With due caution on teacher’s part J.


  1. Different viewpoints are certainly needed in the study of history. Willa Cather, author of Death Comes to the Archbishop, changed the name of a real priest in 1830s-1850s New Mexico in her historical novel, and vilified him. But Padre Jose Antonio Martinez baptized my great-grandmother; schooled a great-great-great grand uncle who became a priest; established a law school; published a newspaper; and stood up for the local New Mexicans whose culture was being put down by the French archbishop, Lamy. What do you think my viewpoint is of the local priest?

    1. You gotta love him - knowing you, what else can I think? I'm busy putting a comment after your latest blog entry.

  2. Have you read Kenneth Robert's historical fiction (adult) about Benedict Arnold? There are two books, Arundel, and Rebels in Arms. Roberts did a wonderful job showing Arnold's strengths and weaknesses.

    Deb Watley

    1. No, I haven't read those books, Debbie. Thanks for putting me on to them.