Reviews: Fiction

An Innocent Soldier

By Josef Holub

Holub, Josef. An Innocent Soldier. New York: Scholastic, 2005.  Translated from the German edition by Michael Hofmann. 231 pages.  ISBN-13# 9780439627719 (Hardcover). ISBN-13# 9780439627726 (Paperback).  $16.99/$6.99.

An Innocent Soldier

Many historical novels have the main character as an officer, ably assisted by a sergeant or a trusted servant.  The story is told from the officer's perspective and although his underling may have a major role in the narrative, he rarely has much to say.  The best example of where this happens in novels from our era is the Sharpe novels – where Sergeant Harper is a major character, the stories are about Richard Sharpe.   An Innocent Soldier takes a different approach.  It chronicles the relationship between Lieutenant Konrad Klara and Private Adam Feuchter, his servant during the 1812 invasion of Russia .  What is different about this book is that instead of having the lieutenant tell the story, it told as seen through the eyes of the private.

Private Feuchter is a sixteen-year-old farmhand in December, 1811 when the farmer he works for substitutes him for his son in the annual conscription.  Despite Adam's protests, he finds himself as a driver in the artillery train of the Wurttemberg army.  He is constantly victimized by his sergeant until spotted by seventeen-year-old Lieutenant Klara who is looking for a servant to accompany him in the upcoming campaign.   Soon Adam finds himself in a chasseur regiment and the rest of the story is about their adventures and misadventures during the Russian Campaign.

Adam is barely literate and has never been beyond his own village.  His worldview is one of a wide-eye innocent who is constantly amazed by what he sees.  When he learns that they are going to Russia , he asks where it is and if it is bigger than the Holy Land, since the only geography he learned in his village school was from the Bible! On the other hand, Lieutenant Klara is not only an officer and a count, so he is more worldly, but he has also been sheltered most of his life. As the two of them move further east and start to experience the hardships of the campaign, their survival becomes dependent on Adam's ability to forage and look after them both.  A friendship soon develops, despite their differences in class and rank. 

The battle accounts are minimal; however, the author does an excellent job of chronicling their trials through the horrors of the retreat from Moscow.  The characters could have easily been in the French Army instead of the Wurttemberg contingent.  Having them be Germans allows the author to show their gradual disillusionment with both Napoleon and the Wurttemberg King, who at the beginning of the campaign is considered "the highest of the high" and by the time they return from the campaign, the king is "His Highest, Fattest Majesty." 

An Innocent Soldier does have its lighter moments, including a scene where a French marshal tries to give his own Legion of Honor to Adam, after the regimental command refuses it and rides off.  Adam decides that "A common soldier isn't allowed to receive such a thing.  The marshal doesn't catch me anyway, because, like the lieutenant, I present my back and bottom to him and hare off after the colonel."

The book is entertaining, but is written for teenagers.  It focuses more on the relationship between the two teenagers, with the setting used as a vehicle to develop their friendship.  The author keeps the details about uniforms and battles fairly generic, so I did not notice any glaring historical inaccuracies.  He does a good job describing the time the army spent in Moscow looting for their survival and the crossing of the Beresina.   If you have a teenager who is interested in the period, this book will definitely keep their interest. 

Reviewed by Robert Burnham, FINS

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2007


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