A debut novel tells a fictionalized version of the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps.
The year is 1775, and young Joseph Grimm is adrift in Philadelphia, feeling “the pull to wander” and “to see new places.” The city is, of course, a turbulent place: war has broken out, and the Continental Congress scrambles to assemble a military force to face the British. A Dutch merchant and family friend rails against the British royalty and unfair taxes, urging Grimm to fight for the cause of liberty (“the cause needs such as you so desperately”). Seeking purpose and adventure, Grimm joins the newly formed Continental Marines. A grueling training period abruptly ends when he and his fellow Marines are deployed on a secret mission to protect the funding source of the future U.S. Navy. But the Continental forces face many enemies, including Maj. Marcus Phillip Calhoun, a British officer who seeks to undermine the fledgling Navy. Large portions of the novel are not actually Grimm’s story, instead relating the experiences of family, including the patriot’s sister, Gabriella; colleagues; and, most prolifically, Calhoun. He is an intriguing creation—at times cartoonishly fiendish as well as genuinely sympathetic (born to a lower-class mother, he rails against his own military valuing rank over merit). Arndt’s use of multiple perspectives adds movement and richness to the novel—as when intense military confrontations are told from opposing viewpoints—but sometimes the device muddles the narrative (for example, the chapter on Gabriella). While the book’s first third gets bogged down in overlong or sentimental back stories, later portions have a pleasant propulsion as the thriller-esque plot churns along. But Grimm’s storyline eventually feels flat in comparison to Calhoun’s, as the Marine, loyally following his superiors, becomes more of an awed observer than a decision-maker. The tale also veers into simplistic mythmaking (the author sometimes depicts the British, their sympathizers, and the Iroquois enemies of Grimm’s family as physically or spiritually deformed). As in scores of works set in this period, there is oddly little acknowledgment that many Revolutionary leaders owned slaves. Still, the novel strikes true notes of historical complexity, revealing the tensions based on class and region within the Continental cause. Ultimately, Arndt conveys a vivid sense of the overwhelming odds the Continental Marines faced as well as the scrappy ingenuity and bravery they demonstrated.
A flawed but entertaining thriller set during America’s tumultuous beginning.