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Friday, July 25, 2014

'Rise' an interesting tale of America's birth
Author borrows father's formula in retelling of American Revolution

At a glance
Rise to Rebellion: A Novel of the American Revolution
by Jeff Shaara

Ballantine Books
510 pages, $26.95
hardcover

When we apply the term ``formula'' to the act of creating art, we're seldom being complimentary.

A formula is a kind of template, a paint-by-number format whereby the artist - whether painter, filmmaker, composer, writer or the like - completes a vision by filling in the blanks. And only in the most rare cases does the material that he or she uses have the feel of originality.

Jeff Shaara's work is certainly formulaic. It follows the same format pioneered by his father, Michael Shaara, whose historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, ``The Killer Angels,'' won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

A masterwork of character development, and one of the best depictions of war ever written, ``The Killer Angels'' relates the battle of Gettysburg through the eyes of several characters. Those eyes include some of the battle's great names, such as Robert E. Lee, George Pickett, James Longstreet and Winfield Scott Hancock. But the horrible glory of war is perhaps best seen through those of the young rhetoric professor from Maine, Joshua Chamberlain.

Not only do the younger Shaara's first three novels ape his father's style, they actually serve as bookends to his Civil War saga. The first, ``Gods and Generals,'' acts as a prequel, introducing us to the characters - Chamberlain, Hancock, Lee - who will prove so important to the struggle at Gettysburg. It also tells the poignant story of Thomas ``Stonewall'' Jackson.

``The Last Full Measure'' takes up where ``The Killer Angels'' leaves off and continues on through Lee's surrender at Appamatox. And the third book, ``Gone to Soldiers,'' takes us back to the Mexican War of 1846-48, a conflict that proved to be a training ground for many of the same men who would, that day in the summer of 1863, stare at each other across a wide field that led up to the aptly named Cemetery Ridge.

Having said all that, it's important to add this: The word formula doesn't automatically relegate Jeff Shaara's work to second-rate status. Yes, it gets docked points for originality. And it's doubtful that any critic will ever write that his work surpasses, except for moments, that of his father's.

Overall, however, it does measure up. And taken together, the Mexican/Civil War novels make up a workable quartet.

Now Shaara has taken the formula and applied it to a different struggle altogether. ``Rise to Rebellion: A Novel of the American Revolution'' is exactly what its title advertises: It tells the story of America's birth.

The novel covers the period beginning in 1770, when the American colonists are bridling under British rule but still seeking redress through political channels, and culminates six years later with the Continental Congress' passage of the Declaration of Independence.

In between, Shaara, as in the earlier books, uses a range of interesting characters to tell the story, each through his or her eyes. And as in the earlier books, he gives equal weight to each side.

From the colonial point of view, we have Benjamin Franklin struggling as a diplomat to make the English see the error of their ways. John Adams splits time between his family (including his loyal wife, Abigail), his law practice and his obligations to the two Continental Congresses. And then there are the others, from the fiery Sam Adams and Patrick Henry to the quietly determined Joseph Warren and George Washington.

As for the British and their sympathizers, Shaara portrays them, too, as humans with the requisite full complement of decency. From the colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson to the British military commander, Gen. Thomas Gage, they are arrogant, brash and oblivious to the fire that is raging around them. But, too, they are men of honor who believe in doing their duty.

Most of the major historical moments are portrayed - the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's ride, the battles at Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Breed's Hill (which is often, if mistakenly, thought of as having been fought on Bunker Hill).

While walking us us through this tumultuous six-year period, Shaara has undertaken a task more difficult than his father's. Unlike a three-day battle, it's harder to maintain a reader's interest over a half-dozen-year span of politicking broken only by the occasional spurt of action. And ``Rise to Rebellion'' does shine best during its few moments of action - the Royal Marine Thomas Pitcairn and his fellow redcoats fighting their way back from Concord, for example, or Joseph Warren's moment as a soldier on Breed's Hill.

Even so, Shaara should be congratulated. Although some historians dismiss his work as mere pop history, Shaara is no academic slacker. Not only does he do an immense amount of research, but unlike any number of other historical novelists he's particularly careful about taking any license with the truth.

And anyway, the fact remains that if history books were ever even remotely this interesting, fewer students would fall asleep in class.

Jeff Shaara may not be an original voice, but that hardly matters. He's found a niche, a formula if you will, and he fills it brilliantly.

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