Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 03/17/2012 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. A work of historical fiction valuable for its leadership lessons from a military campaign fraught with indecision and ineptitude.
Historical fiction has the power and the potential to teach the reader much about the human condition. And, of course, it can teach much about events and cultures and lifestyles of bygone decades, centuries, and millennia. In the wrong authorial hands it can co-opt history to advance subversive agendas, but its judicious use can open up a world hitherto undiscovered. In his novel The Fort, prolific author Bernard Cornwell turns his literary guns on the ill-fated Penobscot Expedition of 1779.
Forty years before Maine separated from Massachusetts, a small British expeditionary force was deployed to Majabigwaduce, a small loyalist settlement on Penobscot Bay. It was a strategic area, fortifiable and defendable. The British felt confident in sending only three ships and less than a thousand men to defend it. Once arrived, they began to construct a makeshift fort optimistically and grandly christened Fort George after King George III. While the fort was in the early stages of construction, an American force of 1700 men and over 40 ships arrived to conduct military operations against the British entrenched there. The events and non-events that followed are known as the worst travesty in United States naval history until Pearl Harbor.
As in all Bernard Cornwell novels, the characterization in The Fort is careful and artful. Cornwell tries, and succeeds, in portraying the characters warts and all, without undue castigation or undeserved hagiography. He has done thorough research, and not a single character suffers from under-development. I must say that I did find the characters of Paul Revere and Dudley Saltonstall to be much of a muchness, but this may be due to the reader of the audiobook using the same vocal style for the voices of both officers.
Historical fiction as a genre is perhaps most susceptible to the charge of inaccuracy. After all, this type of writing requires filling in narrative gaps in the historical record. Then again, no historical fiction author worth their salt ever claimed to be entirely factual. The best of these authors study the period’s events and ethos rigorously, then lay a compelling and true-to-life narrative over the bare facts. Cornwell is a master at this complicated craft, in my experience. Employing an absolute proliferation of original documents as precursors to each and every chapter, Cornwell has endeavored to synthesize accuracy and artfulness. In my subjective opinion, The Fort is a finer piece of writing than any of Cornwell’s Sharpe books that I have read to date.
Of course this book will not be appropriate for younger readers, since Cornwell has rendered it as true-to-life as possible without succumbing to gratuity. There is no hint of sex but scads of violence, and the soldiers and sailors speak like soldiers and sailors. No contemporary profanity worse than two B-words appear (and fairly often) but I would warn adolescents below the driving age away from reading The Fort due to the sheer vehemence and bloodthirstiness of some of the minor characters (below driving age because when they are drivers they are likely to hear some of this language on the roads). This is war, after all, and cultivating a hate of the enemy was encouraged. Some of the characters in The Fort are God-fearing and God-honoring, but no exploration of their faith occurs in the pages of this book.
In the end, this book has greatest value for its leadership lessons. As some Amazon reviewers have asked, why compose a narrative around the Penobscot Expedition, rife as it was with non-events and failures to act? To paraphrase and expand the old adage: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat the actions that led to failure, as well as the non-action that has often led to similar ignominious ends.