The labor pains of democracy

Two novels about the US Revolutionary War - one looks broadly, the other concentrates on a female soldier

Two Southerners have published novels about the American Revolution this season. Robert Morgan is a poet who teaches at Cornell University, and Jimmy Carter is an ex-president who builds homes for poor people, and they bring their respective sensibilities to bear on these stories. The enormous audience for Civil War fiction may discover that this earlier conflict holds just as much interest.

The Hornet's Nest is being marketed, apparently without irony, as "the first work of fiction by an American president." (Surely, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton must feel slighted!) But true to the honest man's reputation, this isn't really a work of fiction, or if it is, it just barely is. Any number of history textbooks could benefit from the president's congenial storytelling style, but his narrative - so measured, so detailed, so utterly free of psychological insight or wit - wears its cardigan sweater through all 450 pages.

Carter follows the travails of a quiet frontiersman named Ethan Pratt. With an earnest new wife, the young Philadelphian leaves his father's cobbler's shop to follow his dynamic brother to new opportunities in North Carolina.

Ethan wants only to work hard, mostly alone, and build up his farm, but Henry, his brother, can't resist politics and the spirit of discontent sweeping through the colonies. Ethan warns his brother against the dangers of radicalism, but Henry admonishes him not to imagine he can remain aloof from the changes that must come. The tragedy, of course, is that they're both right.

Far from the usual perspective of Philadelphia and the other Northern colonies, "The Hornet's Nest" provides a particularly illuminating history of the revolutionary conflict in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. It was a savage mess that should give pause to anyone hoping to implement democracy in a conflicted country.

Like a good lecturer, careful to make sure everyone follows along, even in the back, Carter demonstrates the divided reactions of the colonialists, most of whom simply wanted to live their lives without being exploited by London cronies or looted by rebel zealots. He's particularly helpful in his explanations of how Quakerism played into the debate, how slavery complicated the politics, and how the British tried to manage the Indians as allies in battle, a tactic that terrified the colonialists and encouraged their tendency to demonize the natives.

But the narrative plods without a note of subtlety. Over and over again, characters seem to turn away from each other toward us, pick up a piece of chalk, and begin

lecturing about the intricacies of their political, economic, or agricultural situation. They ask loaded questions, write reports, or conduct debates that have all the life of those "spontaneous" panel discussions at corporate meetings, e.g. "What is the difference between people who live in England and those who live here?" or "Now let me speak a word about taxes."

There is much to profit from in this remarkably well-researched description of daily life and political conflict during the Revolution, but even the best student will stare longingly at the clock, waiting for recess.

Readers of Morgan's Brave Enemies, however, are unlikely ever to take their eyes off the page - or even take a breath. This relentlessly exciting story is told in alternating chapters by two of the most sincere narrators imaginable. It's a blessing they found each other because any contact with irony would have proved fatal. (Can there be no wit in fiction about the Revolution? Ben Franklin, your country needs you again.)

The first narrator is Josie, a young woman who murders her abusive stepfather with an ax and runs away wearing his clothes, posing as a boy. The other is John Trethman, an itinerant minister so spiritually earnest that he sometimes diffracts into a stain-glass image of himself.

When Josie stumbles into John's church one night near death, the minister takes "him" in as an apprentice, and together they struggle to preach amid the brutality breaking out between terrorists for England and terrorists for the colonies.

The slightest suspicion of sympathy for either side brings down the most ghastly punishments on innocent families. "We live in terrible times and in murderous times," Josie says in her simple, rough-hewn voice that just slayed me. Together, she and John try to comfort people of any political persuasion, but bands of rebels use "the war as an excuse to rob and rape and go on rampage," while "to royal troops and officials ... neutrality was an act of treason."

In the middle of their efforts to construct little churches in this bloody territory, John discovers just why it was "from the first time I saw 'Joseph' I thought there was something different about him." He reacts in horror at first, angry at her for jeopardizing his reputation and ashamed of himself for living with a woman. But a few hours of reflection transform their fraternity into love, and they celebrate with a star-spangled banner of romance that would make even an old rouge like Franklin blush.

Their paradise is short-lived, though. British soldiers capture John, and Josie seeks refuge as a male soldier with the rebels. Before either of them know what's happening, they're swept into preparations for the battle of Cowpens.

When the war cry goes up, it's a spectacular scene, a full third of the book, told from both sides of the field. Morgan's poetic skills fire in a sustained volley and a roar of hoof beats. Josie and John capture the battle in bursts of indelible terror and triumph, atrocity, and humanity. By the time Josie says to herself, "You have no business being here," we know exactly what she means, but we can't help feeling grateful she's there with us.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to Ron Charles.

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