Okay, this is a little different.

I normally review modern novels and short stories. This was written in the 14th century, and it’s describing events in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It’s not really a novel, and definitely not a short story. It’s more along the lines of something like the Iliad–a combination of historical account and mythology.

And of course, it was originally written in Chinese. In fact, it’s one of the most famous works of ancient Chinese literature. I read the 1925 translation by Charles Brewitt-Taylor. There are more recent translations, but I deliberately chose an older one because a translator can’t help coloring his translation with his own impressions.

Brewitt-Taylor was an Englishman, and his translation shows a rather Victorian sensibility. So this is looking at a historical-mythopoetic account of ancient China through the lens of an early 20th century Briton. What better way to view one past empire than through the eyes of another?

The book is vast and sprawling, covering numerous battles, political intrigues and other events. The core characters are Liu Bei and his brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Brothers by sworn oath rather than blood, the trio participate in countless battles and grand historical struggles.

7th century depiction of Liu Bei. Via Wikipedia.

Liu Bei is the closest thing to a hero in the story–wise, capable and humble, he usually manages to extricate himself and his brothers from a variety of dangers.

There are shifting alliances and Machiavellian intrigues on every page. (Can I say “Machiavellian” when the events depicted predate Machiavelli by about 1400 years? Discuss.) Also, huge battles and reports of troop movements that are pretty hard to follow for one as ill-trained on Chinese geography as I am. I have at least read Sun Tzu, who is referenced briefly here.

Also, note that the word “romance” in the title is being used in the classic sense, of a medieval legend. Think the stories of King Arthur. Because it’s almost completely devoid of romance in the sense we think of it today. Marriages are arranged strictly for political purposes, and wives and concubines are treated as property.

Of all the hundreds of characters, I believe there are three women who have actual lines of dialogue. These are all rendered in weirdly submissive third-person terms: e.g. a character will refer to herself as “thy unworthy handmaid.” It’s pretty shocking to a modern sensibility. But I suppose everything about life in ancient times would be.

The central theme of the book is the struggle for power. Constantly, nobles and generals are scheming for ways to take power, and to hold it once they’ve got it.

The exception to this is Liu Bei. Despite being supremely capable, he remains humble and unassuming. One would almost say unambitious, and yet he continually rises, by virtue of his ability to positions of command which he hardly thinks himself worthy.

As depicted in the legend, Liu Bei essentially embodies the Confucian concept:

“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.”

This is sometimes paraphrased as, “To set the nation in order, first set ourselves in order.”

The real Liu Bei of course is somewhat more complex than the character of legend, although he still seems well-regarded by history.

That said, the most fun parts are the translator’s renderings of the condemnations heaped upon Liu Bei’s enemy, the villainous minister Cao Cao. For instance:

“Thus Cao Cao is the depraved bantling of a monstrous excrescence, devoid of all virtue in himself, ferocious and cunning, delighting in disorder and reveling in public calamity.”

The version of the book that I have includes the Chinese Hanzi next to the English translation. For fun, I tried looking up the words in the quote above with this miraculous site, to see if it would render Brewitt-Taylor’s translation back into Chinese in anything like the same characters. But the translation didn’t seem to match up with what I was seeing. Even with the hint, via Wikipedia, that this: 曹操 is “Cao Cao,” I still struggled to match what I read on the page with the translation.

However, learning Chinese is not necessary to use this book as a window into a fascinating period in history–several periods, in fact. Given its massive length, it will probably be a while before I tackle Volume 2, but I’m glad I read this one.

jojoLet me start by saying I’m pretty tired of World War II films. There have been a lot of good ones, but there have been so many that at a certain point, I became exhausted with the period. It feels sometimes like the movie industry is barely aware of other times in history.

It’s understandable, of course; the period is full of drama, tragedy and fascinating stories. And the Nazis, with their horrific atrocities, cruel ideology, sinister iconography, and reputation for machine-like efficiency, are the perfect villains.

But all the same, I’ve seen so many movies about WWII that it takes a lot to convince me another one will contain something I haven’t seen before.

Jojo Rabbit is a film about a ten-year-old German boy named Johannes Betzler. Johannes is a fanatical believer in the Nazi party, even as the tide of war is turning against them. He is an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth, and his joy at learning how to fight for the Fatherland is only momentarily dampened when two older boys taunt him for his refusal to kill a rabbit in order to prove his devotion, which earns him the mocking nickname “Jojo Rabbit.”

He is consoled at this moment by his imaginary friend, to whom he often turns for encouragement: his ten-year-old mind’s idealized version of Adolf Hitler.

Imaginary Hitler is played primarily as a goofy, comical slapstick character, egging on Jojo’s fantasies of fighting glorious battles in a jovial, often nonsensical way. He seems like a lovable if rather silly father figure–something which Jojo craves since his own father is away in the war.

Unfortunately, taking his imaginary friend’s advice leads Jojo to an accident with a grenade, from which he needs a lengthy rehabilitation period. During this time, his mother Rosie more or less demands that the Hitler Youth leader now demoted to office work find odd jobs for her son while she is out working.

Jojo is assigned menial tasks such as distributing propaganda posters. One day, on coming home, he hears a noise from the bedroom that belonged to his now-deceased older sister and goes to investigate. He discovers a hidden panel in the wall, where there is a small nook concealing a teenaged Jewish girl named Elsa.

Jojo is terrified, and Elsa commands him not to tell his mother that he knows about her, threatening him with his own Hitler Youth dagger. Jojo retreats to his bedroom, to discuss with imaginary Hitler what to do about this existential threat.

Jojo, of course, believes completely in every anti-Semitic trope Nazi propaganda ever employed. And of course he would–it’s all he’s ever heard in his whole young life. However, since Elsa is older and stronger than he is, and since revealing that his mother is sheltering her would get her into trouble as well, Jojo is left with only one choice: to negotiate.

The result is a series of cautious interviews with Elsa, during which Jojo asks her various questions in an effort to learn the secrets of the people he so fears. Elsa at first is annoyed by his absurd, bigoted questions, and gives facetious answers, but slowly, the two form an almost sibling-like relationship.

Meanwhile, Jojo’s mother tries to manage things as best she can. In one touching scene, she and Jojo argue during dinner–she is gladdened by news of the Allies’ advance, Jojo is outraged at her disloyalty to the Reich. Jojo says he wishes his father were there, and, incensed, Rosie puts on his father’s Wehrmacht jacket, smears soot on her face like a beard, and gives a stern-but-loving impression of her husband.

This scene was fantastic. If you want a taste, you can see the beginning of it here. Prior to this, I’ve only seen Scarlett Johansson in action movies and one dreadful period drama. I was really impressed by her performance in this film, and this scene was the best example.

As the situation deteriorates further for Germany, things become more and more desperate. The film’s comedy mixes with horrific tragedy. The horrors of war, and of the Nazi government in particular, are not sugarcoated despite many of the film’s lighter elements. There is death and destruction and more than one heroic sacrifice. And at the end of the horror, Jojo and Elsa are faced with a very different world than either of them grew up in.

I’ve skipped over quite a lot in this review–there are some extremely interesting supporting characters in this film, such as the Hitler Youth leader Captain Klenzendorf and Jojo’s friend Yorki. Every performance in the film is terrific, but it would take quite a while to describe exactly why.

Normally, I would try to give them all their due, but this is another one of “those” reviews, where I need to go on at length and build up my case, so I’m not going to give you an analysis of every character on top of that. I’m sorry to do this to you twice in one week, but I just had to post this on the 75th anniversary of V-E Day.

Jojo Rabbit is a very polarizing film. Carrie Rubin, whose opinion I value extremely highly, called it her favorite film of the year. On the other hand, CineMuseFilms, one of my favorite film blogs, considered it one of the worst movies of the year.

What’s up with that? (If you’re expecting me to answer this straightforwardly like a normal person; I’m very sorry. You must be new here.)

Let’s start with the most basic question: what kind of film is it? It’s usually listed as a comedy-drama. Sometimes words like “war” or “dark comedy” or “satire” get thrown in as well.

So what’s the comedy part? Well, as I said, imaginary Hitler does a lot of silly, goofy, slapstick stuff. Many of Jojo’s lines are humorous, in the way they depict a naive child trying to seem mature and wise despite having been brainwashed with propaganda all his life. And the supporting characters do some comical things–such as Captain Klenzendorf’s ludicrously flamboyant redesign of the German uniform.

What’s the drama part? Well… it’s World War II. People get killed. Including–I’ll try not to spoil too much–good people. People we like, who don’t deserve it. This ain’t Hogan’s Heroes–the stakes feel real.

This definitely qualifies it as “dark comedy,” in the sense that the humor revolves around very non-humorous subjects. And most dark comedies are also usually satires.

For example, take the 2017 film, The Death of Stalin. It’s a slapstick comedy about the political struggle in the Soviet Union during the power vacuum created by… well, you’re smart; you can probably work out what event they were dealing with.

The point of mixing grim subjects like state-sanctioned murder and blatant propaganda with vulgar comedy in Death of Stalin is to underscore how fundamentally absurd the Soviet government was. The situation was bleak, but also laughable in the sheer illogical madness the lunatics in charge had created in their relentless pursuit of power.

There is something similar going on at times in Jojo Rabbit–maybe most obviously in the scene where the gestapo raids Jojo’s house, in which, despite the deadly seriousness of the situation, there is a bit of comic business where everyone must greet everyone else with a “Heil Hitler!”

But there’s more to the story here. After all, slapstick satires of Nazi Germany and its leadership are not exactly ground-breaking. For example, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or The Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy! (both released in 1940) covered that concept pretty well.

The key lies in the opening credits, when we see footage of cheering crowds saluting the real Adolf Hitler, set to a German version of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” This segues to a scene of young children frolicking at the Hitler Youth camp. It looks almost pleasant; kids having a good time at summer camp–except for the extremely unsettling presence of swastika banners and SS lightning bolts.

I remember seeing a documentary once about Hitler’s rise to power, and the way his speeches and events attracted throngs of cheering supporters. From what I gather, during his ascent he really did have an almost rock star-like following, complete with groupies.

Hitler-as-lovable-imaginary-pal/celebrity… young children playing amid symbols that every modern audience instantly associates with death camps and bodies piled in ditches… what on Earth is this film saying? If it’s out to satirize Nazism, why make it look so benign; like some sort of fan club?

One of the most interesting aspects of crowd psychology is the observation that people in large groups are not as smart as any one of them is individually. The old saying about groupthink “none of us is as stupid as all of us” summarizes it well. Large groups of people are roughly as intelligent as children–naive, easily-swayed, and in search of a leader (parent) to guide them.

Understanding group psychology is critical to understanding Nazism and the other authoritarian movements of the early 20th century. Once you realize that while 1930s Germany may have been composed of many brilliant individual scientists, doctors, artists, designers, soldiers, thinkers, tradespeople, businesspersons etc., their collective psychology was about as easy to manipulate as a ten-year-old boy’s: anyone who seemed confident and strong and promised them grand adventures of glorious conquest while wearing cool, scary-looking uniforms could get plenty of buy-in from the people.

Obviously, that didn’t work on everyone. But it worked on enough people. Tragically.

We all know, now, that the Nazi upper-echelon was composed of people who were evil psychopaths. Armed with this knowledge, it is unsurprising that the policies they implemented were evil and insane. The student of history looks back and wonders, “Why didn’t the German people see what was happening?”

The answer is that the evil psychopaths were handed the levers of power with the consent of enough of the people. This is not because all of these people were as evil or insane as the men they ushered into power, but because they, in the child-like state induced by mob psychology, were all too eager to be deceived by the implausible ethno-nationalist fairy-tale they had been told.

The German philosopher Oswald Spengler said of Hitler, “We need a real hero, not a heroic tenor,” implying that Hitler was merely play-acting at being the kind of leader the country truly needed. Despite this, Spengler voted for him anyway–because he too, despite being a man of learning, was susceptible to ethno-nationalist flights of fancy. So it goes.

Put in patriarchal terms, Hitler was playing at the role of father to a nation that collectively wanted just such a figure. Hitler tried to present himself as following in the tradition of beloved strong leaders from Germany’s past, like Otto von Bismarck and especially Frederick the Great. But he wasn’t. Both Frederick and Bismarck were pragmatic administrators, not single-minded zealots willing to destroy their own nation in a doomed bid for martial glory.

I dislike allegorical interpretations as a rule, but I think it’s reasonable to read Jojo and the imaginary Hitler he creates to stand in for his absent father as a representation of the German national psyche at the time–believing in comforting lies rather than admitting the awful truth, until the appalling costs become too great and too personal to ignore.

My interpretation of the film is that it’s a dramatization of how a collective mental disease progresses. But collective anything is difficult to portray, and so young Jojo is the substitute for “the people”–a malleable mind representing herd psychology.

I said before the film was polarizing, and so you may well ask, did I love it or hate it?

Well, I loved it. I thought it was one of the best World War II films I’ve seen, because it offers an insight into just how such a horrific event could have happened. Usually Nazis in film are portrayed as nothing more than cardboard villains, but in this film, the truly sinister thing about Nazism is made apparent: the awful seductiveness of it. How it could so easily become normalized, especially among young people who knew nothing else.

But if you were expecting a true satirical comedy, I can see you would be disappointed. Even offended, perhaps. Because the objective of the film isn’t to satirize Nazism. It’s more of an examination of how Nazism took root, which is a very dark and uncomfortable subject, and it’s frankly not very much fun to think about, so they sprinkled in some jokes. Otherwise it would just get too damn dispiriting.

And whatever else may be said about Jojo Rabbit, it isn’t dispiriting. It ends on a hopeful, if bittersweet, note. The fever has broken, the film implies, and the children have a chance to build a better future.

volsungsThis isn’t one of my normal book reviews, because this is not a work of fiction per se, but rather a translation of Old Norse myths and legends. So, it cannot be subjected to the same standards of literary criticism I would normally use.

But then, to paraphrase Bernie Kopell’s character from Get Smart: “Zis is Ruined Chapel by Moonlight! Ve don’t ‘normal’ here!”

There are two distinct sagas, but they both tell similar tales of bold warriors and beautiful women. In fact, the majority of women were described as “the most beautiful of all women.” I guess ancient Scandinavia was like Lake Woebegon.

There is, of course, lots of back-stabbing and sex and murder and revenge and incest and never-ending wars of conquest. I never actually read or watched the Game of Thrones series, but based on these tales, it seems to just be following in a long mythological tradition.

Oh, and of course there are familiar mythological elements such as dragon-slaying and a rather interesting story early on in which Odin sticks a sword into a tree trunk and says only the most powerful of men shall be able to remove it; which seems like an obvious relative of Excalibur from Arthurian legend. 

At times, the whole thing can get a bit confusing, and I sometimes get the sense that the bards who recounted these legends didn’t pay attention to things like time and continuity. For instance, there is one story in which a woman keeps having children, only to discover, one by one, around the age of 10 or so, that they are unworthy for the quest that fate has ordained for them. I mean… was there really time to wait around and go through that process repeatedly?

The story feels as though it’s being told rather than written—which is very much a credit to Dr. Crawford’s translation, as I would assume most of these kinds of tales were initially passed down as an oral tradition, and only subsequently written down. Reading it, I felt like I was sitting around a camp-fire in a dense forest of snow-covered evergreens, listening to a mysterious one-eyed old man spinning off-the-cuff yarns: “Now there was one time when it is told that Svanhild…”

As I said, you can’t subject an ancient work like this to the standards of modern criticism. It’s a convoluted intergenerational epic, full of confusing family bloodlines, prophecies that people ignore or misinterpret at great cost to themselves, and bizarre and inexplicable plot developments.

Wait, hold on… sorry, I was just reading Twitter, which at the moment is full of people talking about the latest Star Wars movie…

You know, now that I think about it, you can see how people would have been fascinated by these myths. So many of the common tropes of ancient mythology still persist in storytelling to this day. Perhaps these ancient tales of great wars, betrayals, and revenges, are more than just interesting pieces of history. They speak to some deeply-rooted impulse in human nature—a desire to imagine the exploits of larger-than-life characters and their impossible deeds. Thanks to these very accessible translations, modern readers such as myself, even with almost zero prior knowledge of Norse mythology, can do just that.

(Post-script: I came across Dr. Crawford’s works via my friend and fellow author, Noah Goats. Thank you, Noah!)

h-_p-_lovecraft2c_june_1934
H.P. Lovecraft

First, a disclaimer: I’ve said this before, but it’s necessary to reiterate every time I talk about him: H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a very good person. He was a racist. He was an elitist. He was a Nazi sympathizer. (To be fair, he died in 1936; before the worst of their crimes would have been known to the world.) Anytime Lovecraft gets praised for anything, it has to be qualified by mentioning these facts.

When I was in college, I used to go to the library in between classes and hang around reading collections of Lovecraft’s letters. And while this meant having to suffer through his frequent bigoted rants, it also exposed me to another side of Lovecraft: the man who assembled a group of like-minded authors, and offered friendly advice, criticism, and encouragement.

Because despite his general fear of other people, Lovecraft was famous for the circle of friends he amassed—mostly fellow writers who were all trying to publish offbeat stories like the ones he wrote. He corresponded with many of the authors who wrote for the aptly-named pulp magazine Weird Tales. The most famous example of this is probably his letters to the teenaged Robert Bloch, who would go on to fame as the author of the extremely un-Lovecraftian horror tale Psycho.

It was also very likely Lovecraft’s correspondence with other writers that saved his work for future generations. August Derleth, another of Lovecraft’s pen-pals, was key to getting many of Lovecraft’s stories published after the author’s death. Lovecraft himself showed next to no interest in the commercial side of writing. I think he considered it beneath his dignity. But Derleth preserved and published the stories for a wider audience, to the point that now Lovecraft has an entire sub-genre named after him.

The ironic thing about Lovecraft is that, for me, most of his stories aren’t particularly scary. With a few exceptions, most of them are fairly obvious and sometimes downright tedious. He had good concepts, but only so-so ability to actually execute them.

But the reason Lovecraft is such an important figure is not his fiction, but that he was a conduit. As his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature demonstrated, he had a vast knowledge of the work of his predecessors, and kept alive the memory of masters like M.R. James and Robert W. Chambers to pass on to a new generation of horror writers. And in turn, the new generation that Lovecraft introduced popularized his writings, and his style.

Lovecraft wasn’t a great writer, but he had an ability to find people who were. He was like a beacon, assembling people who wanted to write a certain kind of horror, and introducing them to other authors who had tried similar concepts in the past.

(Side-note for Lovecraft fans: I’ve speculated that Lovecraft must have felt some sympathy for Joseph Curwen, the unnaturally long-lived sorcerer in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward who, through necromancy, confers with great minds of the distant past.)

Lovecraft had an uncanny ability to bring people together, and it was that ability that allowed the sub-genre that bears his name to exist. As the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society wrote in tribute to him, in one of their more sentimental Lovecraftian song parodies, “Mythos of a King”:

He was hardly famous, and never rich

Unless you count his friends.

But his Gothic pen has inspired men

And his vision still extends.

For all his flaws—and there were many—this was the thing Lovecraft got exactly right. To me, nothing illustrates this better than Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle is an African-American author who enjoyed reading Lovecraft at an early age, even despite all of Lovecraft’s disgusting racist sentiments. LaValle wrote a splendid weird tale both inspired by and in rebuke to Lovecraft.  Someone Lovecraft himself would have looked down on was able to build on the foundation of his tales, and make something better than the original.

***

Another one of those old dead snobs that I used to read in my youth was an author named Albert Jay Nock. Nock, like Lovecraft, was an autodidact, and also a self-described misanthrope. He was an early proponent of libertarian thought, although I have to believe he would find modern libertarianism entirely too crass. Nock, as we’ll see, had a pretty high opinion of himself.

Nock wrote an essay called Isaiah’s Job, about the Biblical prophet charged with warning the people about God’s wrath. While Isaiah is at first discouraged that so few believe him, God explains that His message is for what Nock called “the Remnant”: a select subset of the population who will understand it.

Nock obviously, and with characteristic arrogance, saw himself as a figure similar to Isaiah. His message was meant for a small group of people, people whom the messenger himself may never even personally meet, but who will nonetheless receive it and take appropriate action. Or as Nock put it: “Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness.”

Lovecraft’s function in the world of horror was similar: he put out the message about weird fiction, and became a kind of touchstone for everyone interested in it. Sherlock Holmes famously said to Watson, “You are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.” Lovecraft was a conductor of darkness—dark fiction, to those interested in the genre. His own stories are almost superfluous to his real contribution: he united people who otherwise would have remained apart. 

I’m reading Gordon Corrigan’s history of the Hundred Years’ War, A Great and Glorious Adventure. I enjoyed his history of the battle of Waterloo and this book is more of the same–lots of historical details, plenty of witty footnotes, (this being the best) and a gleefully pro-English bias.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I want to talk about the book’s cover:

AGAGA.jpg

From a design perspective, it’s perfectly fine. I might have gone for an older-looking font for the title and author’s name, but that’s not a big deal.

But let’s look closer at that painting on the cover:

1024px-Steuben_-_Bataille_de_Poitiers

According to Wikipedia, this is a painting by Charles de Steuben, entitled Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732. (“The Battle of Poitiers in October 732.”) It depicts the victory of Charles Martel and the Franks over the Umayyad Caliphate.

This is a fascinating battle, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the Hundred Years’ War, which didn’t start until May of 1337. So what’s going on here?

Well, there was also a Battle of Poitiers during the Hundred Years’ War. In fact, this is the more famous Battle of Poitiers, and the Franks vs. Umayyads one is more commonly known as the Battle of Tours. I’ve written about this confusion before.

I’m thinking what happened here is that somebody searched for an image for “Battle of Poitiers,” found this, and was impressed by how sharp it looks. I can’t blame them; how were they to know there were two Battles of Poitiers?

41cwxxvN-bL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Nola Fran Evie is a story about four women, each trying to make a difference in the world. The three title characters are all players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, organized in the 1940s. The three starred for the Racine Belles, until the league folded when taken over by businessman Harvey Shaw.

The three women go their separate ways from there, until they meet again at a Cubs game–Nola bringing her baseball-loving son, Fran photographing the action, and Evie as the unhappy wife of the same Harvey Shaw.

From there, their lives intertwine in strange ways, as each tries to cope with life after baseball in her own way, amidst the conventions and prejudices of the 1950s. Nola juggles single motherhood with work, Fran wrestles to control her own fiery emotions, and Evie struggles with her loveless marriage.

All three women’s stories are told through flashbacks, prompted by items found in an old handbag by the fourth woman, Jacks, another baseball lover who discovers them as she is in the process of boxing up her belongings for a trans-Atlantic move.

The different threads blend together well, and each of the main characters is clearly and distinctly drawn, each with a vivid personality that makes them enjoyable and memorable. I especially enjoyed the interactions between Nola and her son.

In the end, all three characters’ stories tie together in a logical and satisfying way. And Jacks, too, finds herself fitting into their tale as well.

This book is more driven by characters than by plot, but the crisp prose and witty dialogue make it all flow smoothly; the story never drags, and the jumps between different time periods are handled well.

I was expecting the book would feature more baseball than it actually does, but after roughly the opening quarter of the novel, the sport becomes secondary–though still important as a way of bringing people together, and as a metaphor. (To be honest, this was kind of a relief to me–I’m not a big fan of the game. But even I could appreciate how well-written the baseball portions were.)

There are memorable lines throughout Nola Fran Evie, and I was consistently impressed by Skrabanek’s skill at memorable descriptions. Even details like clothes and household objects–which I sometimes find myself skimming past in books by big-name authors–are described with wit and care.

This is a charming, well-crafted book with lots of period atmosphere and vivid characters. Nola, Fran and Evie feel like real people, so much so that I suspect different readers will react differently to each one. Fran’s personality really stood out to me–she reminded me of someone I once knew, and Skrabanek explores her psychology so well that I felt as if I understood my old acquaintance better for having read the book. That is a testament to the quality of the writing.

Lovers of feminist literary and historical fiction, take note: Nola Fran Evie deserves your attention.

51p0X2UPjgLMy dad has told me for years I have to read this book, along with another of Roberts’ novels, Oliver Wiswell. Well, Wiswell isn’t on Kindle, but Rabble in Arms is. So the choice of which to buy seemed obvious, although as it turned out, it might have been better to go with a physical copy–more on that later.

Rabble in Arms is set in the early years of the American Revolution, and is told from the perspective of Peter Merrill, an American patriot and merchant who joins the rebelling colonists.

Peter’s brother Nathaniel also joins, but is constantly distracted by Marie de Sabrevois, a beautiful but devious woman who is obviously (to everyone except Nathaniel) a spy for Britain. Peter himself falls in love with her niece, Ellen.

Repeatedly, Peter is thwarted in his efforts to court Ellen by the actions of de Sabrevois, and likewise his attempts to look after his brother are thwarted by the same. Well, that, and the war gets in the way too, as the Americans–represented by a colorful cast of supporting characters, highlighted by the one-dimensional-but-still-funny Doc Means–continually find themselves struggling against the mighty British Empire, thanks to a blundering, out-of-touch Congress and a number of incompetent, bureaucratic officers.

Patriot officers are depicted as a pretty worthless bunch in Rabble in Arms, with one significant exception: General Benedict Arnold. Indeed, it became pretty clear early on that Peter’s romance with Ellen, and Marie’s seduction of Nathaniel, and all the antics of Doc Means and the other supporting characters, are just filler sub-plots. What Roberts was really out to do with this book was rehabilitate General Arnold’s image. (Peter at one point tells the reader, “It has not been my purpose… to tell the story of Benedict Arnold.” But he’s lying.)

And frankly, it seems like Roberts has some legitimate points. How many people know that Arnold was wounded fighting for the Americans in the invasion of Quebec? For that matter, how many people know the Americans invaded Quebec? The aftermath of this invasion forms the first act of Rabble in Arms, and Arnold’s heroics are the highlight. The fact that the action was a defeat for the revolutionaries is laid at the feet of other officers.

Likewise, in the American retreat, Arnold is portrayed as a master strategist and brave warrior. Presumably, Roberts made his fictional narrator a ship captain so he could have a front row seat for Arnold’s feats of daring at the Battle of Valcour Island.

Roberts seems to be on firm factual ground here. Wikipedia (As my statistics teacher used to sarcastically call it, “the most valid source ever.”) summarizes: “The invasion of Quebec ended as a disaster for the Americans, but Arnold’s actions on the retreat from Quebec and his improvised navy on Lake Champlain were widely credited with delaying a full-scale British counter thrust until 1777.”

After Valcour Island, our heroes are captured by a tribe of Native Americans, who later turn them over to the British, who then turn them back over to the Native Americans again. If anyone is wondering how the Native Americans are portrayed, I guess I’d say, about like you’d expect from a book written in 1933.

All the characters who aren’t actual historical figures are basically stock caricatures. The only two female characters who say anything of substance are the pure, sweet, innocent Ellen and the evil, manipulative temptress Marie. The Madonna/Whore complex is strong with this one!

After more misadventures, one odd interlude with a captured Hessian soldier, and more problems caused by Marie, Peter makes it back in time to witness Arnold win the battles of Saratoga, despite being stripped of official authority by the bumbling General Gates.

Again, Roberts has the facts on his side here: Arnold indeed performed bravely at Saratoga, and was again wounded–shot in the same leg as in Quebec.

The penultimate chapter is a summary of why Peter will always defend Arnold, in spite of his subsequent treason. Indeed, Peter (who is clearly acting as a surrogate for Roberts here) even defends Arnold’s betrayal, arguing that Arnold came to view Congress as a greater threat to the United States than the British Empire.

While I was doing research for this review, I came across something interesting: Benedict Arnold’s open letter “to the Inhabitants of America.” That’s right; back in 1780, shortly after his betrayal, Arnold tried to explain himself to the people he’d just sold out. I recommend reading the whole thing. But here’s the key bit:

I anticipate your question, Was not the war a defensive one, until the French joined in the combination? I answer, that I thought so. You will add, Was it not afterwards necessary, till the separation of the British empire was complete? By no means; in contending for the welfare of my country, I am free to declare my opinion, that this end attained, all strife should have ceased…

…In the firm persuasion, therefore, that the private judgement of an individual citizen of this country is as free from all conventional restraints, since as before the insidious offers of France, I preferred those from Great Britain…

If we take Arnold at his word–which admittedly is a dangerous thing to do with the most infamous traitor in history–he was defecting because he didn’t like Congress making an alliance with France. That’s pretty ironic, considering it was the Arnold-led victory at Saratoga that persuaded the French to enter the war.

Throughout Rabble in Arms, Peter makes repeated reference to the Continental Congress giving undeserved military ranks to French officers, passing over more qualified Americans to do it. He doesn’t explicitly connect the dots between that and Arnold’s betrayal too closely, but the pieces fit.

(For what it’s worth, the most famous Frenchman to fight for the American colonies, the Marquis de Lafayette, went to France to secure military support for the Americans in January 1779. Arnold set the wheels of his betrayal in motion in May 1779. Make of it what you will.)

I’m not saying it’s accurate, but Roberts laid out a plausible case here: Arnold feels Congress is overlooking him. Congress is casting their lot with the French. Arnold doesn’t like Congress, and he doesn’t like the French. So, he thinks America is better off negotiating with the British. Arnold was perhaps the first (but not the last) American patriot who believed he had to fight the government in order to save the country!

Except…

Arnold wasn’t just betraying Congress. He was betraying the men who had fought with and for him, and the families of the men who died for him. He was betraying the trust Washington had shown in him by giving him command of West Point. (While Arnold was generally disliked and unpopular among his comrades, Washington seems to have been one of the few people who actually liked and respected him.)

This is where the “Arnold-had-to-betray-America-in-order-to-save-it” theory breaks down a bit, and other possible reasons for his betrayal start to loom large.

Despite his best efforts, Roberts’ novel comes up short in persuading me that Arnold’s treason was justified. Arnold was no doubt a brave soldier, and quite possibly a brilliant strategist. He may well have been badly treated by men not half as skilled as he was. But I just can’t buy the conclusion that Arnold did it, as the narrator claims, “to fight a greater threat than England.”

So, Rabble in Arms doesn’t fully succeed as pro-Arnold propaganda, but it makes a solid effort. Arnold gets all the best lines, and when he’s not around, I found myself longing for him to get back into the story. The rest of the book is pretty standard historical adventure type stuff, though it’s not without its charms. Roberts could make the occasional keen insight. For instance:

“The vainer a man is, the tighter he clings to his preconceived notions; he’s afraid of someone accusing him of changing his mind, which would show he hadn’t been the all-wise possessor of all knowledge from the moment of his birth.”

All in all, it’s a decent book if you like historical fiction and can stand a tale that takes a–well, let’s just say, a very old-fashioned approach to portraying its non-white and female characters. It’s actually pretty mild by the standards of its time, really. I’ve read other books from the period that just ooze racism and misogyny; this is more patronizing.

And now, a word of caution for those who buy it on Kindle, as I did. Whatever software they used to scan the pages of the physical copy to make the electronic version has some flaws. Quite often, a word was misinterpreted by the scanner, and an incorrect word inserted in its place. It was usually possible to figure out the correct word from the context–“lie,” for example, was throughout rendered as either “he” or “be”–but this got annoying after a while. I could never be sure if some characters’ names were really what they appeared to be. It would have actually made for an interesting meta-literary device had it been done intentionally and in another context–I was always second guessing what I read, like an unreliable narrator story.

I wouldn’t say this ruined the book for me, but it was irritating, and some readers may prefer to spring for the physical version and avoid the hassle of things like figuring out that when a character appears to say “TU he,” what he’s actually saying is “I’ll lie.”

My dad and I love watching history documentaries. He sent me one the other day about Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda minister.

I learned that, in addition to things like making newsreels and staging rallies and so on, Goebbels also served as a producer on German movies. Think Cecil B. DeMille but a Nazi, and you get a pretty good idea of his cinematic style.

The documentary showed a few clips from a film called Kolberg, an epic war film set in the early 1800s, depicting the German town of–you guessed it–Kolberg withstanding a siege laid by Napoleon’s forces.

I have to say, some of the clips I’ve seen from the film look surprisingly good, from a technical standpoint. Look at this:

Kolberg (1945) represented an attempt by the Nazi film industry to get ordinary Germans fired up to defend the Fatherland.

The film was intended to boost German morale–it’s supposed to be an Alamo or Thermopylae-like story of a small group of fighters defying overwhelming odds. Goebbels apparently was so hell-bent on making it that he required tens of thousands of German soldiers to serve as extras.

That’s right: between 1943 and 1944, the Nazi-controlled film industry was using military assets to make epic war propaganda films.  In case you needed any more evidence that these people were insane.

When the Kolberg was finally released in January 1945, it was a box office disappointment, owing possibly to the weather (winter ’44-’45 was extremely cold) or possibly to the fact that MOST OF THE MOVIE THEATERS HAD BEEN BLOWN UP BECAUSE GERMANY WAS IN THE PROCESS OF LOSING A WORLD WAR!

Anyway, Goebbels was apparently pleased with this thing. Supposedly he gushed after seeing it that the die-hard Nazis who fought to the end would be remembered like the city leaders of 19th-century Kolberg.

I assume a lot of Goebbels’s subordinates knew he was nuts, but just didn’t say anything.

What’s most interesting–disturbing, actually–about this is how much the Nazis thought about how they would be remembered. Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer, wanted buildings that would leave impressive ruins and endure into the future, like the Colosseum in Rome or the Parthenon in Greece.

Architecturally, their plan mostly failed since nearly all Nazi-era buildings were destroyed. But it bothers me sometimes how much Nazi iconography persists in modern media. Granted, it is inevitably used as a shorthand for evil, but I fear that sometimes the symbols trump the larger message. SS uniforms, for example, were designed to convey darkness and power, and those things are alluring to some people.

It’s no coincidence that lots of internet trolls use Nazi symbols as avatars, logos etc. Partly this is just because trolls like to be ham-handedly shocking in order to get attention–that’s almost the definition of a troll. But I think there’s also something inherent in the design that strikes a chord–and not a good chord either, but a chord of power and aggression.

I’d never heard of the story of Kolberg before, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve studied the Napoleonic wars more than most. There’s clearly good material here for a drama–indeed, a German writer named Paul Heyse wrote a play based on it in 1865. Heyse was apparently pretty well-respected in his time, because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910. The film is based on the play to a degree, although they didn’t give Heyse proper credit because he was Jewish.

I have a feeling I’d rather see Heyse’s version of the story than Goebbels’s. But this is exactly the problem I mean–the pages of History are filled with the words and deeds and icons of psychopaths who wanted to be remembered at any cost, not those of normal people who just tried to do good work.

Kolberg is available online, by the way, but I’m not going to link to it, because ownership of the rights is unclear, and I’m not sure if these are legal.