THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY by Charles Royster

THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY

A Story of George Washington's Times
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Royster (Louisiana State Univ.; The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans, 1991) has previously proven himself a master at providing fresh and significant historical interpretations through historical narratives. Here, he has momentarily lost his touch. A tale that spans more than a century, has a cast of characters manyfold greater than War and Peace (requiring a genealogical scorecard to keep straight), and a staging as baroque as Les MisÇrables, this book gives the impression of being a large story for many smaller stories’ sake. Loosely tied to the extraordinary history of efforts to develop and profit from the great Dismal Swamp lying between Virginia and North Carolina, the book takes us across the history of 18th- and 19th-century Virginia and over the seas to Africa, Britain, and the Continent as well. Everyone worth knowing (half, it seems, intermarried) and some scoundrels besides walk the stage. Land is the main character, the hunger for land to grow rich by the drama’s engine. The Father of the Country plays a leading and honorable part. Minor characters are as diverse and well-drawn as any in a Dickens novel. And marriages, deaths, feuds, and sudden turns of fortune fill the adventure with life. But in the end Royster is defeated in his efforts to control his materials. There is simply too much—too many stories and not enough theme or argument. It’s hard to tell what the author wishes us to come away with—pleasure at riveting tales (characteristically well told, to be sure) or a deeper understanding of the most important colony and state in the century surrounding the American Revolution. If the latter, he fails (as he does not in his previous, prize-winning works) to tell us what that understanding ought to be. A great sprawl of a book—artful, entertaining, informative, deeply researched (163 pages of notes), but in the end frustrating. (20 illustrations, 5 maps, not seen)

Pub Date: Oct. 3rd, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-43345-7
Page count: 608pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1999