Another Chance To Get It Right: Eric Flint's The Rivers of War
a guest review by Nick Mamatas
Despite decades of reading, I was fooled by one of the oldest tricks in, or rather on, the book. The Rivers of War by Eric Flint (Ballantine, $25.95) bamboozled me with misleading cover copy; specifically, regarding during the War of 1812:
What if--at this critical moment--bonds were forged between men of different races and tribes? What if the Cherokee clans were able to muster an integrated front, and the U.S. government faced a united Indian nation bolstered by escaping slaves, freed men of color, and even influential white allies?What if, indeed? Unfortunately, The Rivers of War is not a book that explores these questions. Eric Flint was a breath of fresh air in his earlier books, like 1632, which actually did feature ordinary people as agents of alternative history, but this book is simply rehashed "Great Man" theorizing, and features virtually nothing described above. Instead, the book is the story of the War of 1812. Flint says he makes one minor change to history, and this "want of a nail" (or want of a horrible groin injury) allows Sam Houston to play a much larger part in the conflict. A Cherokee sympathizer, he works with Indian fighter and well-known racist Andrew Jackson to move the Cherokee over the Mississippi river, but in order to build their own nation-state that would actually have some level of independent sovereignty. But first, three hundred pages of battle scenes! Indeed, we never actually see anything of the nation building or even any of the planning; instead Flint offers up a quasi-historical military novel of the sort likely to be enjoyed by fans of David McCullough and people who don't normally read novels.
Flint writes in a very "accessible" style, which is to say that anyone who is a careful or highly interested reader will be annoyed -- the one-book-a-year crowd who generally fuel the bestseller lists will eat it up. The first few pages are inauspicious. There's a duel between Charles Dickinson and "the principal", or "the other party." We all know what's coming: the "other party" wins the duel and is then revealed to be ... Andrew Jackson! Such trickery is tedious when done well, but Flint goes for the ham fist and simply refuses to tell us who "the other party" is until he's ready to draw the silk handkerchief from the top hat and show off his rabbit. It's actually fairly insulting to the reader's intelligence.
The Rivers of War also appeals to the reader of bestsellers by punting: labeled as a novel of the frontier, most of the book takes place in Washington, DC and New Orleans, with stops in Fort Erie and other places relevant to the War of 1812. He greatly limits Andrew Jackson's racism, and has characters apologize for it. For example, one Patrick Driscol, who reads like Flint's alter ego (a "workingman" soldier, Irish, propogates a pre-Marxist class analysis, anti-slavery, even predicts a civil war) considers Jackson thusly:
The same Jackson who thought nothing of referring to black freedmen as "niggers" had also championed their right to bear arms, overriding the vehement protests of the slave owners. He'd furthermore insisted that the men of the black battalions would receive the same pay as white soldiers.Given that nearly all the rest of Driscol's thoughts on the nature of class, race, and politics is limits-of-the-possible early 19th century radical (Driscol is a fan of Paine's Common Sense) he's rather too forgiving here. Jackson clearly isn't seeing "the men beneath their skins", not anymore than most of the white slaveowners who produced offspring with their female slaves were universally in romantic love with their property. Jackson's simply being practical. He needs guns against the British, and would rather not have a race riot behind his own lines at the same time. And this isn't Driscol going soft on Jackson either; Flint the author needed Jackson to support Houston's never-explicated plan to build a Cherokee nation across the Mississippi, so Jackson is designed as something other than the moonshine-mad, wild-eyed lunatic who graces our sawbucks.
A bully, a bigot -- sometimes a brute -- but still one who could suspend all that at times because he could see the men beneath their skins.
Leaving politics aside, this sort of exposition, wherein one character considers another, fills dozens of pages to poor effect. It's a simply pedagogical tactic as well; there is no disagreement about any character by all observers. Everyone thinks Jackson is a calculated bully with a soft interior, everyone sees Driscol as a man with a spine of iron and radical but compelling ideas, Sam Houston is clearly a golden boy and a genius destined for greatness. There's not one instance of any principals in Flint's world thinking poorly of someone while others think well, and nobody is ever wrong either. Jackson is a bully who never holds a grudge, Driscol is a man's man and a "troll" (nobody thinks of him as an "ogre" even when he's being ogreish – the characters live in a one-metaphor universe). John Ross is useless in battle but very clever, etc. Rather than using the expository observations to teach us about both the observer and the observed, Flint simply cheats: the technique is a way of using omniscient narration and infodumping to continually remind the non-reading reader who is who and what they're all about. The characters also grin (literally, they almost never smile or smirk, it's all grin grin grin grin grin) whenever they predict what someone else is thinking or about to say, as if they're all in on the cosmic joke that they're just paper dolls being pushed around by a novelist.
Like many books designed to appeal to the non-reader reader, The Rivers of War is also full of missteps that, in the old days, a competent copyeditor would have queried. Nearly everyone in the early battles is shot in the head, and Flint repeats the phrase "blood and brains" too many times. On the one occasion where a victim's brains do not leave his head, the closest observer nonetheless notes that the fatal bullet certainly has "jellied the man's brains" to go along with all the blood. On page 35, John Ross is in a battle so noisy that he can't even hear the pistol go off in his own hand. On page 36, in the midst of the same battle and only seconds later, he's introducing himself to another character, one who responds "The John Ross, from Ross Landing? The same one who made a fortune swapping stuff with the Americans down on the river by Chatanuga?" Suddenly the battle is quiet enough for our warrior pals to catch up like two old grandmas over a game of canasta! These days, an action-adventure hardcover almost has to be written so poorly; to write well in a novel of this sort of seen as putting on airs and turning off the bulk of one's potential audience.
And it goes on. Jackson sees Houston blush, and internally comes up with the metaphor "He looked like one of the brightly painted Christmas ornaments that German immigrants were starting to turn into a popular custom." Is this really the first comparison that would come to Jackson's mind, or is this Flint nudging his reader about Christmas trees? The latter, it seems to me. At one point, a character is hit with some splintering wood and "pawed at his eyes." Two pages later, another tells him "Stop pawing at your eyes!" One of the pleasures of historical fiction is seeing historical figures and everyday people come to life; in The Rivers of War, we read a one-man show where Eric Flint wears a series of poorly fitting wigs.
All that said, Flint does his major battle scenes well. The defense of the Capitol building, led by Sam Houston, Patrick Driscoll, and manned by a ragtag group of soldiers they managed to rally, is great fun, and the chess game that leads up to Flint's version of the Battle of New Orleans is quite suspenseful. These two battles stand out in the book because they're not designed to show how stalwart Driscol is or how brutal Jackson is, but because they offer a full panorama of fear, bloodlust, planning, and the dozens of exogenous and minor variables that too often spell the death of good soldiers.
Even here, though, I wince. The battle of the Capitol is observed by Francis Scott Key, who rewrites his famous anthem to depict it rather than Baltimore Harbor. Flint again fakes the funk: Key fumes that the soldiers aren't putting up a star-spangled banner, and then puts the high C at the end of what is the first stanza. Too bad the national anthem actually has four stanzas, even though only the first is sung (with its high C a modern innovation) at ball games and in grade schools. I'm sure Flint knows all four stanzas (do you?) but he also knows that most of his audience doesn't, so he plays to common knowledge, not accuracy. And of course, nobody can resist the voodoo curse that requires writers to shoehorn Marie Laveau into any book that depicts New Orleans.
Flint says in his afterword that The Rivers of War is the result of a request to write a strict alternative history where The Trail of Tears never occurred. He rightly points out that by the early 19th century, given the political economy of America, such an alternative was simply not in the cards. However, Flint clearly also wanted to write a war novel. He could have gone back to the 18th or 17th century, for example, and created an event that made the New World unpleasant for immigrants. He could have changed the course of American Indian history, and used them as historical subjects rather than mere objects, and designed a different history of the continent by altering its indigenous "pre-history." But these novels would have been novels of ideas, and novels of ideas don't sell in hardcover. Battles, famous white people acting a great deal kinder than they did in life, wisecracks, and the opportunity to "learn something" that can be repeated at a cocktail party or family reunion, those sell books. Would that the recent history of publishing and reading were different, but unfortunately, poor books forged in potential greatness inevitably fill our shelves these days.