Von Rosenberg’s debut novel explores war-torn life in Russia, Prussia, Texas and Mexico in the days of Napoleon.
While he’s yet a preteen, Baron Ernst von Rosenberg, considered a Gypsy changeling by his imposing father, takes advantage of a summer break from military school and leaves his Prussian homestead in order to join Russia’s fight against Napoleon. On his way to Moscow, he meets a true Gypsy (who prefers the term Rom) named Yak, who will remain at Ernst’s side as a near-brother through all adventures. Ernst is drafted into the Russian military and Yak volunteers. Playing drum and bugle for the troops, the boys have a front-row seat to the vivid horrors of war. While Ernst briefly describes his reactions, it’s hard to get a feel for any true emotional toll it takes on him. Ernst and Yak both return to the von Rosenberg estate, Eckitten, from where they are soon summoned to fight with the Prussian military once again against Napoleon. Field Marshal Blucher, having received word of the boys’ valor in Russia, enlists the two as right-hand men and confidants. Following the conclusion of the disheartening gore known as Waterloo, the boys enjoy a respite at Eckitten that nears normal adolescence. Soon enough, the pair travel to America, where Ernst determines to find a dreamland less subjected to politics, war and bloodshed. While taking part in a mission meant to foment revolution in Texas (then under intransient ownership), the boys are captured and hauled to Mexico. Through a combination of crafty escapes, chance meeting and luck (benevolent and otherwise), Ernst finds himself in a precarious position. In the face of circumstances that would separate many men from their noble bearings, this “Little Baron” remains brave and finds comfort in memories of his many expeditions. Von Rosenberg’s first novel hinges on rather fantastical encounters, but it does so while acknowledging the importance of a good story—for surviving long nights during battle and for conveying history.
While in need of polishing and at times lapsing into straight historical note-taking, the novel is a compelling, at times humorous, means of experiencing important checkpoints in history.