Sunday, February 24, 2013

BOOK REVIEW

The Hessian by Howard Fast (1972)

American novelist Howard Fast is a wonderful storyteller. Like Jeffrey Archer across the Atlantic. Many of their books, especially Fast's, have historical and biblical significance; their stories are plain and simple, yet compelling; their narrative and substance is devoid of hyperbole; and their characters are extraordinary in an ordinary sort of way.

Howard Fast died in 2003 but I refer to him in present tense because of his impressive body of work comprising some 50-odd novels that include the Masao Masuto Mysteries under the E.V. Cunningham pseudonym and a few works of non-fiction and short stories. I haven't read many yet.

I read Howard Fast books many years ago and, I think, The Hessian is his first book I read this century. It turned out to be an educative and entertaining read, a fictional account of what might have been a factual event.

Author Howard Fast
© Wikimedia Commons
The Hessian is set during the American Revolutionary War or the American War of Independence in the second half of the 18thcentury. The Hessians were German soldiers hired by the King of England to fight against the 13 colonies that revolted against Great Britain’s rule. The Hessians were so called because a majority of the soldiers came from the Hesse region of Germany. They were called “mercenaries” by the American colonists.

The Hessians wore boots and shining black hats and green jackets with bright yellow facings, sported waxed moustaches, and carried bayonet scabbards that slapped against their thighs. The sight of the Hessians, as they marched in tandem with the beat of drums, sent chills down the spines of their opponents.

The story in The Hessian is narrated in the first person by Doctor Evan Feversham, a colonel in the Continental Army (a precursor to the United States Army) during the American Revolution. He is a Catholic from England and married to a Protestant woman. He lives with her community and practices medicine on the Ridge in Connecticut, in the New England region.

A detachment of 16 Hessians preceded by a youthful drummer boy named Hans Pohl and their commander Wolfgang Hauser disembarks from a British frigate and marches towards the Ridge. They belong to the J├Ąger Regiment, a German light infantry unit.

Hessian soldiers
© Wikimedia Commons
As the troops make their way towards the Ridge, they meet Saul Clamberham, an orphaned and oversized halfwit, and hang him to a tree. The lynching is witnessed by Jacob, the 12-year old son of farmer Raymond Heather, a Quaker, who lives on the Ridge with his family.

The news of Saul Clamberham’s killing spreads through the Ridge. In no time Squire Abraham Hunt, the rigid and influential Yankee aristocrat and chief of the local militia, leads a band of armed men in ambush of the Hessians and kills them in cold blood, even as Doctor Feversham, his medical kit in hand, watches in horror and helplessness.

In the mayhem, Hans Pohl, the drummer boy, is seriously wounded but manages to escape and is eventually sheltered by Raymond Heather’s courageous and compassionate Quaker family which, apart from his son Jacob, includes his wife Sarah and 16-year old daughter Sally.

As Doctor Feversham treats and heals the drummer boy, he realises the enormous sacrifices made by the Quaker family in protecting Hans Pohl, the surviving Hessian. He is nursed back to health by Sally who falls in love with him. This is their story.

Meanwhile, Squire Hunt, who has certain differences with Doctor Feversham, is desperately hunting for the drummer boy so they can try him for murder of Saul Clamberham and hang him. The Squire and the small New England community he represents believe in an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth because they know no other way in war. Theirs is a land without mercy.

If I go any further, I’ll have to sound a spoiler alert.

This period image shows Hessian soldiers as heartless warriors.
© www.ushistory.org

While the hunt for the sole survivor of the brutal Hessian massacre on one hand and a beautiful girl’s love for the drummer boy on the other form the main plot of The Hessian, there are several elements in the story that I found interesting.

For example, narrator Doctor Feversham has seen the worst of war and he is in a perennial state of mental conflict over what is right and what is wrong, frequently brooding over the “desolate wasteland” of his life and the “meaningless fragment” he has become on the Ridge. The Heather family’s kind attitude towards Hans Pohl and their willingness to take him as their own reveals to him the goodness in people, in this case the Quakers on the Ridge.

Feversham, a Catholic, is unable to come to terms with the Protestant community’s hunger for Hans Pohl’s blood even as his wife Alice tries to clear his misgivings by stating, “We are not barbarians, Evan, we are plain Christian people who were persecuted and driven for a hundred years before we came to this land.” A bitter Doctor Feversham remains unconvinced.

Squire Abraham Hunt is determined to hang the surviving Hessian even as he battles his conscience, indicated subtly in the overall narrative.

Doctor Feversham’s unspoken and undeclared love for Sarah Heather adds to his emotional conflict but he remains loyal to his American wife, Alice, who knows he continues to harbour feelings for the Quaker woman.

At 219 pages, The Hessian is a poignant and compelling story but it lacks the intensity, particularly the avowed passion between Hans Pohl and Sally Heather, which one might expect at the start of the book. Instead, the narrative focuses more on Doctor Feversham’s inner battles that rage in the backdrop of a war that has thought man to hate and to kill. Although the story moves at a fairly dramatic pace, you can guess the events as they unfold right up to the end. Nonetheless, Howard Fast has written The Hessian in his inimitable style, a unique historical story told in a beautiful way.  


Notable lines from the book

“Believe me, there are no better soldiers in the King’s army than the Hessians and it was no great risk for them to come up onto the Ridge with sixteen muskets.”

“God damn that,” I cried. “Every soldier who set foot from a ship onto our soil killed for hire—Hessian, British, French, Scot! What damn difference does it make? They all kill for hire! This whole filthy game is played for hire! I’m only asking you not to make us like them, to show some Christian mercy!”

“No one in his right mind wants war in his back yard, and since the war was down in Virginia now, only a damn fool would take measures to introduce it into Connecticut.”

“What eats you, Feversham? You were a soldier, I was a soldier. When we fought the big battle on the other side of the Ridgefield, there were ten times that many dead, and not Germans either but our own kids. You want me to weep for them?”

12 comments:

  1. This is a very interesting and detailed review, Prashant. And timely for me. There is an American Revolution Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations (http://warthroughthegenerations.wordpress.com/2013-challenge-info-and-sign-up/) that I was interested in but had no knowledge of any books (fiction) set in that time that I would read. Regardless, I will try this book or another non-mystery by Fast. Thanks for the review.

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    1. Thank you, Tracy. One thing I forgot to mention is that Howard Fast's writing style may not be to everyone's liking because of their often slow and leisurely pace. His books are entertaining, nonetheless, and you learn something along the way. The "American Revolution Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations" sounds fascinating and I hope you come across books set in that period. There are many though, offhand, I can't recall any fictional titles. There are hundreds in the non-fiction category.

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  2. Oh, I can pick this up next week, Prashant.

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    1. Patti, I find variety in Howard Fast's 50-plus books and I'm planning to read a few more titles that I've marked out.

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  3. This is a great ttribute to Fast Prashant - and I've not read this one, so that's a bonus too as I shall seek it out.

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    1. Thanks very much, Sergio. I remember I used to enjoy reading his books, especially the sequential The IMMIGRANTS, SECOND GENERATION, and THE ESTABLISHMENT. They were all well-written novels. I'm glad I've rediscovered Howard Fast's books.

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  4. I've read some of Fast's work and enjoyed it. He could write a good story.

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    1. Charles, he sure could and I'm hunting for more of his books.

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  5. I like Fast's work a lot...though his sf could be weak, his historical fiction was pretty consistently wonderful. Surprised you've compared him with Archer, who is not so much loved in a lot of circles (I haven't gotten around to his work).

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    1. Todd, I compared Howard Fast to Jeffrey Archer with regard to their storytelling style where I found a lot of similarities. I didn't know Fast had also written sf.

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  6. Howard Fast also wrote the Masao Masuto Mysteries
    as "E.V. Cunningham" which are worth reading, too.

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    1. George, I haven't read Fast's work under the E.V. Cunningham pseudonym though I'm familiar with the the Masao Masuto Mysteries.

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