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 Old pro Hotchner, known for the biography Papa Hemingway (1966) and a downbeat account of the Rolling Stones in the 1960s, Blown Away (1991), turns in a breezy historical in time for Independence Day. The shallow tone is established early, during several scenes set in France in 1750 at the court of Louis XV, where the central character, Guy Laroule, plays at being a fop without actually becoming one. He delights in theatrical flirtations with the King's first consort, Madame de Pompadour--among them acting out sexual encounters without engaging in sex, so that she can learn how to please her king. Like the reader, however, the king is unconvinced of Guy's innocence. He banishes Guy to Louisiana, where he assumes ownership of a rundown plantation and, suddenly, is transformed into a hard-working, ingenious capitalist who pays his slaves wages and refuses to take black mistresses. As the plantation begins to prosper, he rescues a woman from an abusive relationship and marries her--a great relief, since romance doesn't appear to be Hotchner's thing. The tale perks up somewhat when Guy quits plantation life to become a fur trader at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers--and is thus in on the founding of St. Louis. Perhaps because St. Louis was Hotchner's hometown, he's more credible here. Guy becomes a powerful businessman and politician, conferring with no less than Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to effect the Louisiana Purchase. Hotchner waxes almost eloquent on the power and dangers of the two great rivers, and he effectively enough dramatizes the violent rivalry among those anxious to control and exploit the new land. Best in this hodgepodge history are scenes dealing with the first St. Louis breweries, and early methods of refrigeration using ice cut from the rivers and caves beneath the city for storage. Hotchner's name will pull in some readers, but this is finally a curious, shoddy, and uneven production even by Hotchner's standards.

Pub Date: July 4th, 1996
ISBN: 0-7867-0309-1
Page count: 400pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1996


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