Setting his hand to historical fiction, the former president focuses on the American Revolution, getting the history part right, the fiction not quite.
It’s the Revolutionary War as fought in the South—mostly Georgia, the Carolinas, Florida—and what a story that is. It has sweep, drama, suspense, and, as Carter suggests in his acknowledgments, it surprises for some who think they know what 1775–83 was all about. The war, southern-style, was a ferocious, bloody, take-no-prisoners kind of war, despite the homogeneity of the combatants. The vaunted British army was, for the most part, otherwise occupied, as was the less vaunted Continental army, George Washington only a name written on the wind. Miles away from Bunker Hill, Saratoga, etc., guerrilla warfare ruled: Loyalists (to Britain) vs. Rebels (against Britain), but Americans all, behaving toward each other as savagely as if they had never been friends and neighbors. Not long before the breakout of hostilities, Ethan Pratt and his wife Epsey, newly married, leave Philadelphia to arrive, ultimately, in Georgia, where they stake out a land claim, convinced they’ll be able to ignore those complex and vaguely irritating events up north in the interests of getting on with what matters—raising crops and family. It’s a delusion, of course, and soon enough the two are swept up in the swirl of fast-moving events: Ethan, a pacifist at heart, joins a Rebel militia group; Epsey, left on her own, finds protection among the Quakers. Poignant, even desperate things happen to both, but essentially they’re protagonists at the periphery. At one point, for instance, Ethan virtually vanishes from the action for 160 pages. It’s hard, then, not to conclude that it’s the history that fascinates the author, while the fiction merely interests him.
Carter’s 17th book (Christmas in Plains, 2001, etc.), the first work of fiction by a US president, will certainly inform, but, lacking the novelist’s spark, it’s unlikely to move or grip.