Reviews: Fiction

Napoleon in America

Selin, Shannon. Napoleon in America. Vancouver, BC: Dry Wall, 2014. 303 p. ISBN# 97809921275. Paperback.

Napoleon in America

This is a work of fiction starting from the notion that Napoleon successfully escaped from St Helena in February 1821 and was taken to America, where he recovered his health (not without some assistance from Voodoo). What would he do next: settle down as a country gentleman like his brother Joseph; return to Europe to reclaim his throne or attempt to invade neighboring territory and establish a new kingdom? What would be the reaction of the European powers and of the American government? How would this affect the stability of the Bourbon monarchy in France? What about the effect on his wife and child and on his Bonaparte relatives?

I am not a plot spoiler, all I will say is that all this is gone into in considerable depth using genuine correspondence and newspaper reports of the period artfully adapted to the fictional events. If the list of characters at the back of the book is to be believed all of the characters are historical; most of them clearly are and where possible their own words have been used, though they have, of course, had their histories adapted to fit the new circumstances. The book handles American and French history with equal confidence though I can only judge of the accuracy on the French side. The level of research and scholarship puts many non-fiction histories to shame.

The character of Napoleon is well developed: since he is the hero this is a sympathetic portrait but the character flaws are demonstrated and although he is surrounded by Bonapartists there are enough testimonies to the darker side of his career to give some balance. There are too many other characters for them all to be fleshed out satisfactorily which is, I think, a problem. Not only is it difficult to remember them all but some characters who look promising when they appear drop out of the plot annoyingly: Joseph's daughter Charlotte for instance, who appears on the scene as a girl of character but ends up doing nothing more than wondering which of her cousins she should marry.

My main criticism of the book is that the minor characters cannot engage us enough emotionally, it is hard to care much about any of them apart from the little Franco-Austrian prince. The author's style is, I think, deliberately terse and prosaic and the letters, being genuine 19th century, are long and quite difficult. I am quite happy with this but I wonder if the general reader will find it hard to get into the book. As a personal gripe, I find it very annoying that, after the difficulties of escape from Longwood were outlined at the beginning we are never told exactly how it was managed!

A look at the author's website suggests there may be further books to follow. This would explain the ending being less conclusive than I had anticipated and possibly some of the minor characters here may get better parts in the next act. I hope so.

 

Reviewed by Susan Howard

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2014

 

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