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Wow. I wish I could give this book six stars. I wish I could demote every five-star rating I've given to a book or a CD or a DVD so that I could give OLIVER WISWELL a unique five-star rating, thus marking its place as one of the best books I've ever read, period. Reading this book was an epiphany. Having an undergraduate history minor, and having taken courses in historiography, I was used to the idea of reading history while keeping in mind that it was written by the victors and by people with their own agendas; but never has that principle been so real, and so vivid, as in the reading of this book. In all my years of school I never learned so much about the Revolutionary War, never cared so much about the war, and never read a book that made me want to visit New Brunswick, Canada.
The novel begins in April 1775, when the protagonist is ejected from his home by American rebels, and ends in 1783, when the war has ended and he and other Loyalists leave their home country to establish roots in Canada. In between, the author manages to have Oliver plausibly meeting some of the most interesting characters involved (General Howe, John Vardill, John Cruger, etc) and at the scene of many of the war's most interesting events (the Battle of Bunker (Breed's) Hill, the rebels' surrender of New York, the intrigue-ridden courts of Paris and London, the trek to Kentucky by fleeing Tories along Boone's Wilderness Trail, the siege of Ninety Six and Benedict Arnold's campaign in the south, and the Loyalists' post-war settlement in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Gibralter, Bermuda and the Bahamas). Furthermore, we become involved in the personal lives of several main characters: the young Mr.Read more ›
If you enjoy historical fiction or are interested in early American history, then I would recommend this book, because of its unusual (and neglected) subject matter, and because Roberts is a very fine writer. But for other readers the book would likely be too long. The title character is a well-educated New Englander who is disgusted with the rabble-rousing politics of Boston agitators like Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and when forced to pick sides when fighting began, chose to side with the crown. He is recruited as a spy / intelligence gatherer and sent on various missions to Long Island, London, Paris, and South Carolina, accompanied by an extraordinarily resourceful and clever jack-of-all-trades named Tom Buell. The book is essentially a fictional autobiography, covering the entire American Revolution through the perspective of a person actively involved in the events of a tumultuous period. Therefore a long book is necessary. Nor does the action move slowly. But Roberts's dialogue often lapses into long-winded speech-making by the loyalist characters (especially Buell) as they express their reasons for opposing the rebellion, and their frustration with the hardships they experience. The account of Wiswell's mission to London and Paris might well have been omitted, although it provides the reader, through Wiswell, an inside view of the confused workings of the King's government. Without understanding or ever speaking a word of French, Wiswell is deployed to capture diplomatic papers from Ben Franklin, the American plenipotentiary in France. Two of Wiswell's friends from America appear in Paris as extremely implausible fellow spies for the loyalist cause.Read more ›
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Oliver Wiswell is an excellent historical novel that, along with Rabble in Arms, Arundel, and The Battle of the Cowpens (all by Roberts) provides a comprehensive view of the American Revolution. Reading all 4 books, one learns a tremendous amount of history about some of the battles fought first in the North at Quebec, Lake Champlain, and Saratoga, and then in the South at the Cowpens and the implications it had for the final American victory at Yorktown.
The reader also gets an excellent insight into the viewpoints of the British, Loyalists, and Patriots during the conflict. So, I strongly recommend that all 4 books be read together (indeed, back in 1976 they were issued together as "A Reader on the American Revolution.")
So, why did I add "But..." to my review title?
Because I emphasize that the only way to fully understand Oliver Wiswell is to first read the other novels. In the book, Oliver is the Loyalist son of a well-to-do son of a rich Boston attorney. The society he comes from is the country's aristocracy of the time... rich, well educated, supremely disdainful of the "rabble" that is fighting for the American cause during the war. First read Rabble in Arms to get an understanding of the tremendous suffering and deprivation the Patriots suffered during the Revolution with incredible selflessness. Learn how they fought against all odds for their country, with little or no pay, often times with poor leadership and little food, and no personal gain while facing thousands of professional, well trained and armed soldiers and foreign mercenaries (not to mention Indians that were capable of quite savagely killing and scalping entire families or defenseless women like Jennie McCrae).Read more ›