Allen explores an early, largely uncelebrated patriot who helped bring about American independence.
Nearly every American recognizes the names George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but Allen’s tale dips a bit further back in time to follow the exploits of the overlooked James Otis, Jr. (also known as Jemmy), one of the men who struck the first blows for the independence of the United States—his words kindling a fire that grew into the American Revolution. While the material dealing with the radicalized Jemmy (who forfeits the life of comfort his family had built over generations) is strong and straightforward, the journey to those incidents, which takes up roughly the first third of the book, is often convoluted. Allen is skilled at portraying how Jemmy’s drives stemmed not just from his intelligence and nascent political philosophy but from his feelings of inadequacy—the upper echelons of Boston society perceived his family as country bumpkins. In the sections that speculate as to Jemmy’s motivations (as well as the motivations of others who accompanied him, all fascinating figures in their own rights), the plot comes to life. But earlier passages—many of which deal with the complexities of the 18th-century legal system, the Otis family history and the economic models used by businessmen of the time—feel too loosely bound together. The author jumps somewhat haphazardly from historical tidbit to historical tidbit, and while some add to the vivid portrayal of the world Jemmy and his cohorts would so radically change, many others could easily be edited out. Still, once Jemmy begins his march toward revolution, the material is much stronger and more focused, and the book makes an effective case that he and his fellow patriots should be better remembered by Americans looking to celebrate their country’s infancy.
A dense, somewhat unfocused historical tale that boasts compelling characters and a plot that ultimately packs a wallop.