In case you haven't picked up a copy of Dennis Byrne's novel, "Madness: The War of 1812", I strongly recommend that you do. It would make one wonderful Christmas gift. It's a ripsnorting yarn. A saga of war and love. A coming of age tale.
It's focus is on a war about which most Americans know very little, and probably care even less. The Star-Spangled Banner and the Battle of New Orleans have entered our collective memory. But otherwise the War of 1812 collects dust in the backroads of history.
It shouldn't. Byrne makes it a powerfully dynamic backdrop to an unlikely romance between a 17-year old Protestant frontier woman, Sally Martin, and an young Irish immigrant and American army officer, Will Quinn. Unlikely because it arises from one of the darkest and grisliest incidents in Chicago's history: the Massacre at Fort Dearborn. The story of Will and Sally is told as the war moves through its different phases and theatres. The Northwest Territories. Lake Erie and the Niagara River. The Northern front and the push to Montreal. Chesapeake Bay. The Battle for Washington. The Battle for Baltimore.
The novel is fast-paced and absorbing, with an epic sweep to it. In his "Author's Note", Byrne says, "It was not my intention to write a narrative history of the war....My intent was to show how I imagined regular people would live the war and how it would change them. If anything does not ring true here, it is a fault of my imagination."
Byrne's imagination does not fail him. He flawlessly integrates fiction and history. Will and Sally survive the Fort Dearborn carnage with the help of the historical Potawatomie chief, Black Partridge. Col. Winfield Scott saves Will from a court-marshall. Sally winds up assisting Dolley Madison at the White House. You almost forget you are reading a novel. Byrne's imaginary constructs seem so real.
What also is real, at times disturbingly real, are the battle scenes. Byrne describes the horror and the lurid mayhem of war in unforgiving graphic detail. "The back of Wells' head exploded in a spray of blood, hair, and brains. McComas took one in the back. Cavan, the most exposed, was struck repeatedly as he braced his gun to fire. Forgetting his own advice, Quinn sprang to his brothers' side. Gunfire, British and American, erupted all around him. Cavan had landed on his back, and one side of him---his face, neck, and shoulder---had been turned into pulp. Quinn vomited."
Reading these descriptions of battles, I'm reminded of the stark, brutal, photographs Matthew Brady took during the Civil War. Or of what Robert E. Lee said. : "It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it."
Man's inhumanity to man also is seen in Byrne's fictional character, the fugitive slave, Henry. When Henry's owner dies, his family is put on the auction block. The picture of wanton cruelty drawn by Byrne as the slaves are like merchandise shamelessly marketed will stay with you long after you've finished the book.
"Madness: The War of 1812" is an exceptional book, well-written and painstakingly researched. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think I have a better handle on what happened and why. About the "blockheads in Washington and the idiot generals" who made it happen. But most of all, I lived through it with Will and Sally and Henry and Frake. And when I finished reading, I knew more about myself too.
Mr. Byrne, I wonder who's going to play Will and Sally in the movie. Got any favorites?