History develops over lifetimes, eras and epochs. Historic novels select one of these and insert characters and events into the history to represent the qualities that shaped that time. Reading a historic novel takes us beyond the sequence of events, and recitations of dates and names. A single volume, gripping novel might be consumed over an inclement weekend. Reading a series of novels may be bogged down with other obligations and intervening books that accumulate on the table. But, with persistence, one may persevere to the final chapter. Such was my experience with the six volume series of Sparrowhawk novels, by Edward Cline. I needed merely seven years to finish them.
My adventure with Jack Frake and Hugh Kenrick began in 2006, when one of our nephews asked to spend part of his vacation with us in Colonial Williamsburg. In addition to touring Duke of Glouchester Street and various living history buildings, we made at stop at the Visitors Center bookshop. Mr. Cline stood behind a table outside the entrance, signing copies of the five volumes that he had completed to date. Never wanting to pass up a chance to meet an author, we conversed, and I walked away with those editions. He promised to complete the final volume. I promised to read these and return. In 2010 we made another pass through Williamsburg, when my parents visited us. Mr. Cline was again at the bookshop with the sixth volume, waiting to sign it (for us, of course.)
I had to confess that in those four years, I had read the first three volumes, Jack Frake, Hugh Kenrick, and Caxton. But, travels in Italy and Ireland had distracted me with history, novels, and art from those regions. I promised to stay the course to complete Empire, Rebellion, and the last volume, War. Meanwhile, graduations, RV trips in the Southwest and South Africa brought alternative histories to read. With another trip to Williamsburg planned this Spring, I bunkered myself behind the bulkhead of winter to finish the Sparrowhawk series before I would have to admit to another defeat of distraction. I hope to find Mr. Cline outside the bookstore one more time.
Sparrowhawk is the name of a ship transporting goods and people between England and the colonies in the 18th century. The novels occur between 1744 and 1775, as Sparrowhawk crosses the Atlantic, and in the process crosses the British Empire. The first two volumes, which reminded me of the style of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, tell of the two boys, Jake Frake and Hugh Kenrick, who grow up in different strata of British society, receive mentorship from leaders on the fringes of the Empire, get caught up in the power struggles of the Crown to subjugate subversives, and eventually progress into adulthood exiled to the Virginia colony.
Both volumes, titled for each of these boys, is filled with descriptive detail of society in the early 18th century, from village homes to manor houses, music, literature, and poetry, to conventions for eating, discussing politics, and the court systems. Both boys affiliate with renegades of their social class, Jack with a band of smugglers who defy the Crown’s taxation system and Hugh with intellectuals who defy the enslavement of the mind to the ultimate authority of the King and Church. Both are exposed to the Enlightenment ideal of Liberty, through a novel, Hyperborea. Each will smuggle this banned book out of England, when he is transported by Sparrowhawk to the colonies, after their mentors are punished for their defiance.
The third volume, Caxton transports us to the village of Caxton and the neighboring plantation life along the York River, outside of Williamsburg. Again, Mr. Cline transfers his knowledge of the region and colonial life to us, via his descriptions of life for Jack and Hugh as they establish themselves in the New World. Jack fulfills his indentured service to the plantation owner who purchased him off of Sparrowhawk, and eventually marries his daughter. His skill, creativity, and loyalty to his sponsor eventually gain my ownership of the plantation at the death of the owner. In parallel, Hugh is set up by his father, a Baron, with a plantation for his situation. His father has been sympathetic to his youthful idealism, while his uncle, an Earl, hopes that he will falter under the survive-or-perish demands of colonial life.
Jack and Hugh both thrive in the freedom of the colonies. They escape the confines of class, eventually meeting, sharing planting experiments and political ideas. Eventually, they learn that each possesses the banned book, and knows passages by heart from multiple readings. In addition to establishing their livelihood, each begins to grapple with the challenges of social responsibility in the colonies. They seek attachment and love. They question the concept of ownership of others, and seek means of liberating their slaves. They ponder what role they should play in formal governance.
The forth volume, Empire, finds Hugh as a burgess in Williamsburg, fighting the Stamp Act and other Parliamentary demands on the colonies. He stands between the Loyalists, who accepts that whatever London requests they agree to, and those who believe that the colonies have no obligation to follow those demands. While Hugh is honing his skill as an orator and tactician, Jack has decided that conflict is inevitable and begins to gather powder, lead, and arms, while building alliances with colonist who agree with is assessment of oppression. This volume is the one that took me three years to read. All those debates in the General Assembly in Williamsburg, and in the House of Commons in London saturated my attention of the Stamp Act and Resolves. Mr. Cline’s understanding of how politicians thought and used words to debate their positions in the 18th century should send one to reading Roman histories and Shakespeare’s plays to expand one’s wit, unless you are Sir Henoch Pannell and wish to just have a few pithy references without a depth of knowledge. My mind wandered to reading Dicken’s Tale of Two City, with all that knitting. Thirty years on, and I have not finished that story!
Empire inevitably leads to Revolution and War, the fifth and sixth volumes in the series. Ten years after the Stamp Act was repealed, more onerous assertions of Parliamentary authority prompt more aggressive opposition, both in political debates as well as armed conflict. Lieutenant-Governor Dunmore dissolves the General Assembly, confiscates the gun powder from the Williamsburg Magazine, and abandons the Governor’s Palace to the safety of various ships on the York River and Chesapeake Bay. Virginia is left without formal government, allowing different factions of Loyalist and American Patriots to claim authority. In parallel, rebellions brew up the Eastern seaboard, culminating in the raid on Concord and Lexington. Jack leads a militia fromVirginia, Sons of Liberty, to Boston to participate in the battle of Bunker Hill. Mr. Cline spares no details about military procedure, tactics, and carnage as the War for Independence begins.
War ends, not with the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, but with the decimation of Caxton in 1775, nine months before the Continental Congress will finalize the Declaration of Independence. Skirmishes, marine assaults, villainy, cannon bombardment of the plantations, and slash-and-burn destruction of Caxton forewarn of what the colonies will experience under the British army’s attempts to re-establish the Crown’s authority. Sparrowhawk, confiscated by the Custom’s Commissioner and transformed into to a warship against the village, is destroyed before Jack Frake leads his militia north to join George Washington’s continental army. Hugh finally accepts the diretion of Jack. Negotiation, debate, and reconcilliation of the colonies with the homeland can never happen. War will break the bonds of kinship and enslavement.
Sparrowhawk goes beyond outlining familiar stories of our Revolutionary War. Mr. Cline prepares us for those well recited parts of history. He includes plenty of historical figures, often during times before they make history. His skillful use of narrative, description, and deliberation introduce us to the ideas and actions, which transformed the colonies into states and eventually a nation over those decades in the middle of the 18th century. His writing warrants staging a dictionary nearby for greater understanding the language that formed those ideas. He relates concepts, which have become mundane or dulled by our 24 hours media, as fresh, novel ideas for 18th century minds. His story line is engaging both to one’s intellect and emotions.
After staying up late one night, engrossed in the final chapters of War, I awoke in the middle of the night, troubled and elated at finishing my task. Salt from tears had dried on my temples as I slept. This was history worth seven years of reading.
Long Live Lady Liberty