Birthing of the American republic

Setting the scene for the first year of the Revolutionary War

This retelling of the story of America's birth will find a secure place on the shelves of readers who know the story well and never tire of it. Jeff Shaara's work is also likely to bring some readers who've never been that interested in the subject to a new appreciation of it.

Shaara artfully blends "story" and "history." His novels about the Civil War, "Gods and Generals" and "The Last Full Measure," brought that seminal conflict to life as few works of fiction have. He now applies the same eye for character and detail to the period leading up to the first year of the Revolutionary War, 1770-1776.

As in his earlier books, Shaara focuses on just a few key players in a vast historical drama. Through their perspectives, delivered in roughly alternating chapters, he spins a panorama of events, motivations, and emotions.

By telling the story of the birth of the American republic through this compressed cast of characters, he heightens the role individuals play in great historical events. It creates an easy intimacy. That this technique lends itself to a televised docu-drama as well, should not be discounted.

Here the chief eyes through which Shaara portrays history belong to Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, and the commander of British forces in the colonies, Gen. Thomas Gage. Prominently woven in through reference and conversation are Samuel Adams, Abigail Adams, Massachusetts royal governor Thomas Hutchinson, Pennsylvania loyalist John Dickinson, and George III himself, among many others.

The events unfolding before these people are in themselves enough to hold interest - from the Boston Massacre to the final adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

No matter how many times you've heard and read the story, it's still possible to be amazed that the colonials pulled it off, finally throwing off England's imperial embrace.

But the binding threads of Shaara's story are the insights he adds, through imagination and research, into the personalities that shaped events. It's fascinating to follow Franklin's forays through British officialdom, as he tries in vain to instill a particle of appreciation for the colonies' complaints.

Later, after the scientist/diplomat returns to America, Shaara has Franklin confront his son William, the royal governor of New Jersey and a devoutly loyal partisan of the king, with these ringing words: "You may be an Englishman, but I am not. Every child born here is born American, shaped by the great differences in this land, in the culture, the beliefs, in the way their parents have learned to survive and prosper. They are growing up in a world far beyond the understanding of your king and his government."

John Adams reasons his way toward the radical stance of separation from England, torn between his intense devotion to his family back in Braintree, Mass., and the monumental work of creating a new nation. Washington struggles with self-doubt and resentful officers as he tries to make an army from ragged militias. And General Gage, whose wife is an American with possibly mixed loyalties, comes to realize the colonists won't be scared back into line by the mere presence of the king's soldiers.

Shaara may take some liberties with his characters. This is, after all, a novel. And he spends no time drawing out important subthemes like tensions between the slave-holding South and the mercantile North. His focus is strictly on the main events unfolding in Boston, London, and Philadelphia - the turbulent steps leading to revolution - and on the thoughts of the main players.

There are numerous straight histories of the period that can give readers more exacting detail and analysis than "Rise to Rebellion" can. But few will be as engaging, or give a greater sense of having met some of the individuals whose lives were transformed by this history.

If you want a very readable refresher on what lies behind the Fourth of July, here's your book.

Keith Henderson is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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