Only a man who survived the trials and tribulations of the West Point cadets and went on to serve his country as an active-duty officer could write such a brilliant dramatization of the military careers and personal lives of the main characters who people this book: Ulysses S. Grant, Lucius Kosciusko Rumble, and Elijah Cord. By showing us the early events that helped shape them into men of honor, Bob Mayer escapes the trap of simply dramatizing known facts from diaries, letters, and so forth that necessarily plagues historians and biographers of the great Civil War generals. Here he creates an engaging, mostly imaginary account based on facts.
Although Mayer's series might not qualify as historiography (in the tradition of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August), there is so much in this novel about early West Point history, the severe discipline and harsh living conditions, and long-established traditions such as the rings, the Honor Code, Beast Barracks, plebe hazing, Silencing, and the terms for each class (plebes, yearlings, cows, and firsties), along with descriptions of such iconic places as the Plain, South Dock, and Kosciuszko's garden, that readers gain a feel for what it means to be a part of the Long Gray Line. Though many things have changed for cadets in the past two hundred years, the emphasis on duty, honor, and country as precepts guiding all of these cadets as they move into the army (and for some, carried into civilian life later) remains unchanged.
The disappointments, pain, and regret felt by all the former West Point cadets shown in this book (especially those who went on to become the most famous Civil War generals) provide gut-wrenching insights into the politics and cultural undercurrents that surrounded these men, compounded by Mayer's deft portrayal of the misery of war, the importance of family, and what must be done sometimes to survive. In addition, their many personal weaknesses and struggles to become better men put a human face on this epic story.
The question of what IS honor, as shown through the comparison between Lucius Rumble and George King, takes center court in this gripping novel and provides sufficient reason to keep the pages turning even for those readers who may not be fans of military history.
The only discordant notes in this book come from the many subplots, such as that of the primary antagonist, St. George Dyer, a slave overseer who hunts down Lucius Rumble and his son in the midst of a Civil War battle. Dyer may very well have existed and might have been as brutal as portrayed here, but having an entire subplot focused on his greed and desire to destroy the Rumble family detracts from the valuable service he does in the book: providing a link with the fascinating Texas war profiteer Sally Skull, another actual historical figure. There are so many secondary characters that some of their stories simply vanish instead of being wrapped up at the end, leading to a sense of an abrupt ending and matters left unfinished.
(Disclaimer: I received a free evaluation copy to review.)
Editorial quibbles for those who care about such things: missing punctuation marks, occasional typos, and homophone errors suggest that although this book went through a spelling/grammar checker, it was not professionally proofread or edited.
5-star review originally posted on Amazon September 3, 2011. This book appears to no longer be available for sale.
For several years I reviewed very few books because Amazon got snitty about authors as reviewers. When I read back through those old Amazon reviews, I decided to copy some to my own website.
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