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Compelling biographical fiction that probes the unlikelihoods and uncertainties behind George Washington’s hallowed historical presence. Just in time for Presidents” Weekend comes another fictional rendering that hunts for the man behind the myth, told in Rashomon-like narratives attributed to real and imaginary eyewitnesses, from a skillful school-of-Michener epic novelist (Annapolis, 1996, etc.) and nonfictional historian of the religious right (With God on Our Side, 1996). The conceit that starts the tale is a mystery: Why did Martha “Patsy” Washington burn a collection of personal letters on the night her husband died? Just after Washington is buried, crusty Hesperus Draper, a self-made colonial who worked his way up from tidewater trader to colonial solider, landholder, and anti-Federalist newspaper publisher, pays his naive, youthful writer-wannabe nephew, Christopher Draper, a king’s ransom to find out what those letters may have contained. He advises Christopher to pretend to be writing a biography of Washington in order to gain access to those who knew Washington while he was alive. Martin’s story takes shape in the form of Christopher’s vernacular notes, supplemented by conveniently discovered written memoirs from those who died before Washington. The visceral, blood-in-the-trenches recollections of the fictional Hesperus, and the brotherly affections of Washington’s slave, Jacob, are among the best of many vividly imaginative constructions. We also get strikingly different glimpses of Washington from Silverheels, a Native American; from Washington’s coquettish lover, Mrs. Sarah “Sally” Fairfax; from the fretful Martha; and from Washington’s numerous political and military rivals. These contrary impressions reveal a postmodern enigma: a conflicted character whose every act was darkened by premonitions of failure—the kind of leader “that if he had not really been one of the best intentioned men in the world . . . might have been a very dangerous one.” A strongly satisfying, eminently readable saga that suggests we—ll never completely understand, or condone, the contradictions and inconsistencies of which great leaders are made.

Pub Date: Feb. 10th, 1999
ISBN: 0-446-52172-8
Page count: 592pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1999


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