The novel opens in 1793. As France’s revolution rages overseas, diplomat Edmond Genet arrives in Philadelphia with a mission: persuade Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, that it’s in America’s best interests to help France wrest control of the lands along the Mississippi from Spain. Botanist André Michaux is a reluctant convert to this secret cause, but not everyone needs that much convincing. Hoping for glory and to restore his tarnished name, former general George Rogers Clark signs on with the French army, persuading many of his fellow Kentuckians to follow him. It’s an easy decision for most, given that Spanish control of New Orleans inhibits trade (and the delivery of fresh supplies) up and down the river.
Most of the scenes play out at Fort Washington near Cincinnati, where an expert marksman from Virginia, Ensign Meriwether Lewis, and his superior officer (and George’s much younger brother), William Clark, become acquainted in surprising circumstances. Their friendship grows as they’re drawn into the conspiracy, and neither is sure where their commanding officers’ true loyalties lie. In this isolated frontier outpost, each man has his own definition of patriotism, and it’s not at all clear which man – and which country – will come out on top.
Other well-rendered portraits include that of “Mad” Anthony Wayne, an aging rascal of a general determined to keep the peace at all costs, and the Clarks’ tormented younger sister, Fanny, married to an abusive man. We also get a firsthand glimpse of Captain William Henry Harrison long before his very short-lived presidency. Here, he’s a priggish officer who spouts quotes from Cicero and Shakespeare and takes pride in being the only man to understand his own jokes. While entertaining, it’s his later actions (as well as his romantic elopement) that save him from becoming a parody of himself.
The action speeds along at a good pace, and the authors don’t shy away from exclamation points when needed. This is a plus, not a criticism! Though it sounds paradoxical to say so, the slangy modern dialogue contributes to its authenticity. If you’re curious what it’s like to be around men wearing powdered wigs (hint: they smell like potato starch), catch toads while wading through a slimy cold swamp, scrub out a cookpot with sand, or traverse the untamed wilderness on foot, this is the novel for you. The descriptions are that realistic, and the natural beauty of the early American landscape shines through. Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with the politics, as everything is laid out clearly, and there’s even a handy map. If you believe that U.S. history lacks drama or fascinating characters, this invigorating novel should do much to convince you otherwise.
The Fairest Portion of the Globe is out this month from Blind Rabbit Press ($22.95, trade pb, 421pp, 978-0-9777636-0-3). Frances Hunter is the pseudonym for sisters Mary and Liz Clare.