An Italian-born adventurer battles Austrians, Russians, Confederates, and anti-immigrant bigotry in this fictionalized saga of a real-life American hero.
Lamphier (The Great Show, 2017, etc.) novelizes the outlines of Louis Palma di Cesnola’s busy life while imaginatively fleshing out scenes of romance, combat, and trauma. The second son of an Italian count, Cesnola bitterly ships out to military school at the age of 14 in 1846 after his true love marries his older brother, the heir to the family title. His timing is great: He soon enlists in the Sardinian army to join Italy’s war of liberation against the Austrian Empire; he weathers endless boredom in camp punctuated by extreme panic in a saber melee, for which he wins promotion to lieutenant. Cashiered after getting caught in bed with a general’s wife, he finds his way to the Crimean War, where he again sits around in squalid camps but gets in a few wild hours slaughtering Russian soldiers. Then he’s off to New York under the Americanized name Louis P. di Cesnola to wed heiress Mary Reid and join the Union Army as a cavalry colonel in the Civil War. Many battles with Confederate cavalry genius Jeb Stuart ensue until Cesnola is captured. His story turns dark and harrowing as he and his fellow POWs face death from disease and semistarvation in harsh Confederate camps. Cesnola survives and, after the war, serves as U.S. consul in Cyprus, where he turns his hand to archaeology and excavates many ancient artifacts; that new profession eventually lands him the directorship of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The real Cesnola led an iconic 19th-century life, and Lamphier’s energetic novel deftly conveys the dizzying self-reinventions he undertook in that bustling age. Her rousing narrative features much engrossing military and archaeological lore, generous helpings of mayhem (“Parnell slashed at his opponent, sinking his saber deep in the man’s neck”), and a piquant love story, as Cesnola and Mary’s initially pragmatic relationship—she’s lonely; he’s broke—deepens into profound affection. The story’s Italian-American pride theme is sometimes intrusive, with Cesnola quick to blame slights and reversals on anti-Italian prejudice among the WASP establishment. Still, when his blood is up, he’s a plucky, appealing hero.
An entertaining biographical novel rich in action and period details.