Book of the week
The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775–1777
“Historians of the American Revolution, take note,” said Joseph Ellis in The New York Times. With the publication of Rick Atkinson’s first volume in a planned trilogy, “a powerful new voice has been added to the dialogue about our origins as a people and a nation.” Not that the former Washington Post writer and Pulitzer-winning author of an earlier trilogy on World War II offers any radically new arguments. But he brings to the story “a Tolstoyan view of war,” insisting that we see how people on the ground experienced the unfolding violence. Atkinson’s you-are-there approach is so cinematic that you may wonder if he’s taking creative liberties when, say, he notes the color of the sky over Concord Bridge. But he seems to have all such details backed by endnotes, and “to say that Atkinson can tell a story is like saying Sinatra can sing.”
“This is not a book for anyone in a hurry,” said Gerard DeGroot in The Times (U.K.). Its 564 pages of narrative text cover only the first two years of an eight-year conflict, and Atkinson is “never afraid to digress,” if the detour delights. Mostly, though, we get details that matter: rebel troops eating boiled leather to stave off hunger, pewter dishes and fishing weights being melted down to manufacture ammunition. And there is heroism and depravity on both sides. George Washington grows as a military leader, but only after early gaffes lead to near-knockout defeats. And though the redcoats are cruel at times—nine of every 10 American prisoners of war died in custody—they also display valor, and are exceeded by the rebels in only one intangible: hope.
But interpreting the combatants’ motives is not Atkinson’s strong point, said Wayne Lee in The Washington Post. He devotes only one paragraph to the Continental Army’s 1776 campaign against the Cherokees, for example, missing one of the principal lessons of recent histories of the war: that there were multiple, sometimes regionally specific, reasons that ordinary citizens decided war against British rule was necessary, and not least among those reasons was a fear of Indians. Stirring but vague talk of “the cause” won’t do it. Still, for anyone who is seeking a smart, detailed account of the war’s ups and downs and who values “sheer dramatic intensity” above all, Atkinson’s work is the one to grab. “There are few better places to turn.” ■