This historical novel follows four generations of men through the events that shaped early America.
Leonard’s (Damned If You Do, 1994) first foray into historical fiction begins in 1695 with the death of Henry Leonard in East New Jersey. From there, each section of the book chronicles the life of another Leonard in short, first-person anecdotes, ending in 1863 Pennsylvania. Each member of the family manages to get mixed up in important historical events such as King Philip’s War, the Great Awakening, and, of course, the American Revolution. The story is closely based on the lives of the author’s ancestors; as such, most characters really existed and many of the anecdotes describe real-life events. Sons in the Leonard clan carry on the family legacy in different ways, since each is said to be “not the man his father was.” Leonard’s meticulous research and attention to historical detail are both strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, the book will appeal to American history buffs. The author re-creates 17th- and 18th-century New England without too much unnecessary exposition, and famous figures like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin make frequent appearances. On the other hand, the story’s close adherence to real-life events means it lacks a driving narrative. Aside from the theme of sons imitating (or not) their fathers, there’s little to connect the four sons/sections. The ever changing narrator also makes it hard to invest in characters. But what the book lacks in storytelling, it makes up for in history. Everything from ironworking methods to frontier surveying is described in thorough but not overlong detail. A few of the anecdotes, particularly in Infant John’s section, are quite exciting, made more so because they’re based on real events. Others, however, are less intriguing. Still, readers who enjoy historical re-enactments may find this book to be a literary equivalent: well-drawn portraits of moments in the past.
An uneven historical novel light on story, heavy on history.