© 1993 Bernard Cornwell
Nathaniel Starbuck shouldn’t be in South, but this son of a preacher man is positively hopeless when it comes to the ladies. Love tore him from the seminary, and it led him into Virginia just as the United States was about to be rent in war, as southern aristocrats — having finally lost their domineering influence over the path of the nation — seceded from the union rather than face the prospect of inevitable change. The appearance of a Bostonian in their midst on the eve of war doesn’t sit right with the townfolk, and Starbuck makes his first appearance running from an angry mob set on tarring and feathering him. Fortunately, young Nathaniel is friends with the richest man in Falcouner County — Washington Falcouner, who owns a mansion with its own name. Such influence is handy, for it saves Nate’s life…but in return for his assistance, Falcouner would like Nate to join his fancy new regiment. While some fear war, to Falcouner it’s a marvelous opportunity to dress in uniforms, salute the flag, woo the ladies, and win some glory. So Nate, son of an abolitionist preacher, is thrown by chance where no one would possibly expect to find him: in the ranks of the Confederate Army, where he will find what fate has in store for him.
I never expected to read the Starbuck Chronicles, for despite having been born and raised in the South, I’ve always been a stalwart Union man. The idea of a northern fellow fighting for the rebels did not sit well with me at all. Oh, I grudgingly figured I would try the first book one day, because it was after all a Bernard Cornwell novel, and I am rather enamored of his work — but I didn’t plan on liking it. As it happens, Nathaniel Starbuck is not an idealist. Frankly, I was off my rocker to suspect that a Cornwell protagonist would be fighting for ‘principles’. No, like Richard Sharpe or Thomas Hookton, Nate is just someone who found himself in the middle of a war, realized he had a talent for soldiering, and decided to play the cards he’d been dealt. Starbuck is no more a states-rights enthusiast than Sharpe is a fan of British foreign policy, but defend it he shall, because he happened to be on that side of the Potomac when the war broke out, and — well, it’d enrage his father, and wouldn’t that be fun?
Rebel is the story of a man finding himself in battle — at the Battle of Bull Run — but he really starts off a boy, and this sets him apart from every other Cornwell hero I’ve yet read. Even when Uhtred of Bebbanburg was a boy, he brimmed over with confidence — his charging the Norse to avenge his fallen father so impressed them that they adopted him. But Nate Starbuck is a fuzzy-faced teenager by comparison. He’s utterly unsure of himself: only that profound weakness for women kept him from being utterly dominated by his father. I’ve haven’t seen a character this easily or drastically derailed by women since The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Nathan was raised Puritan, but he can’t help being a lover…and love will turn him into a fighter and see him change the fate of a nation.
Nate Starbuck amuses me. Of course the novel is superb, filled with little details that make Cornwell’s world seem real, and the characters are as ever fantastic, constantly defying expectations. But Cornwell’s series are known for their larger-than-life heroes, and this one has just gotten his boots on. I’m looking forward to seeing what he makes of himself. As I seem to be sliding into an American Civil War mood (for the first time since 2003…), I may be reading the series this summer. I’m interested in seeing what an English author like Cornwell makes of a conflict that involves only Americans.
The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
Rifles for Watie, Harold Keith. Meant for teenagers, set in the west, about a young boy who joins the Union army and has various wartime adventures, including a stint pretending to be a rebel after he’s caught behind enemy lines scouting.