Sunday, August 01, 2010
The Brimstone Papers
The Brimstone Papers
by David Chacko & Alexander Kulcsar
(Foremost Press / 1-936-15440-4 / 978-1-936-15440-1 / June 2010 / 244 pages / Amazon $13.47 / Kindle $5.99)
Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM
The Brimstone Papers is a worthy successor, or perhaps more accurately, a worthy predecessor (though published later) to Gone Over, reviewed by me for PODBRAM on September 16, 2009. Taken together, the two books amount to a fictional narrative of the adult life of a real historical character of note during the American Revolution, Israel Potter. The Brimstone Papers deals with Potter's life as a young man as the Revolution lurches into motion. Gone Over opens with Potter as a captive of the British and his recruitment by them to spy on his countrymen. It is an extraordinary life, and Mssrs. Chacko and Kulcsar have rendered it in a highly readable and absorbing fashion.
Recapping the Wikipedia entry, "Israel Potter (1744-1826) was... born in Cranston, Rhode Island. He had been a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill, a sailor in the Revolutionary navy, a prisoner of the British, an escapee in England, a secret agent and courier in France, and a 45-year exile from his native land as a laborer, pauper, and peddler in London." Such a man is clearly a fine subject for fictional treatment, all the more so because most details of his life are largely unknown.
The two books flesh out Potter's life in most convincing and stylish manner. Perhaps their finest accomplishment is conveying the sense of the times – grand times, we think today: revolution was in the air. Great deeds were being done, by our worship-worthy forefathers. But few people would have thought that at the time. The colonists would have felt terribly over-matched against the mighty British Empire, sandwiched between British Canada and the (mostly) British Caribbean, threatened by large, well-equipped armies (including German) conquering American cities at will. Spies and loyalists were everywhere. Everything was in doubt, living was hard, and fear and anxiety would have been the order of the day. Chacko and Kulcsar convey this ambience well, much better than conventional histories— but then ambience is one of the strengths of good historical fiction, or it should be.
As The Brimstone Papers opens, Israel Potter is a young man who obtains some land at long odds and is beginning to work it and make a life for himself (after an unhappy episode as a sailor, not described in the book). Harshly raised by his grandfather and inclined to oppose British oppression by whatever means necessary (rendering him a lapsed Quaker), he is sent to report to a relative, a rich, domineering merchant opposed to independence in Providence, Rhode Island. The events which follow result in his joining the militia and seeing action at the battle of Bunker Hill, splendidly described and perhaps the most riveting section of the book.
Gaining a measure of responsibility from his experiences, Potter joins the crew of a hastily prepared warship, badly outfitted under a captain of dubious effectiveness, and sails into a complete disaster. This is the point at which the companion volume, Gone Over, opens. The venality of war profiteers, the incompetence of authority, and the turning of the coats of those of feeble loyalty make today's diplomatic snarls seem tame, however similar. Even Israel Potter was not immune. If he is a hero (I wouldn't call him one), he is a hero with an asterisk by his name.
Both The Brimstone Papers and Gone Over are first-rate, worthwhile reads. I would rate them with the Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels by Patrick O'Brian, surely the touchstone of the genre.
See also: David Chacko's Echo Five
David Chacko's Devil's Feathers
David Chacko's Website