Book Review by Michael Isenberg
It's not my intent for Nerds Who Read to be a political blog. But I wanted to review something for the Fourth of July that captures the essence of America, and these days it's not possible to do that without inviting controversy. So here goes...
blog, he described it as “A term which has no coherent meaning except for serving its proponents as a general purpose Get Out Of Jail Free card. ‘It’s not America’s fault if we did X, Y, or Z. We’re exceptional. Rules don’t apply to us.’”
So perhaps he will take umbrage when I say that his alternative history novel 1632 is one of the finest tributes to American Exceptionalism in print. I’m sure I’m not the first to say so.
1632 is the story of Grantville, West Virginia, which instantly and without warning is ever-so-gently ripped from the American heartland—and the present day—and relocated with all its people, buildings, and infrastructure intact to Thuringia, Germany—four hundred years in the past. The cause of this remarkable transposition—named the “Ring of Fire” because of the flash of light that accompanies it—is aliens, but that’s only mentioned in passing and isn’t important to the story. What is important is how the inhabitants of this all-American burg adapt to their new surroundings.
They are dangerous surroundings. The Thirty Years War is in full swing and bands of mercenaries roam the countryside, pillaging what they can carry, burning what they can’t, and brutally raping any young woman who has the tragic misfortune to cross their path. It’s a world where the plague can attack at any time, anti-Semitism is par-for-the-course, and kings and nobles do as they please by Divine Right, while their subjects have no rights to speak of. Against this backdrop, the Americans must secure a food supply, keep their technology running, establish a government, and face down the combined military might of Europe's Catholic powers.
There’s debate among the townspeople how to proceed. Some want to seal the town off and ration its limited resources. But the overwhelming majority, led by Mike Stearns, head of the town's United Mine Workers local, feels that closed borders isn’t the American way. Give me your tired, your poor, etc. When told, “This isn’t America, you stupid idiot,” Stearns replies, “It will be, you gutless jackass….I say we start the American Revolution—a hundred and fifty years ahead of schedule!”
When America is juxtaposed side-by-side with traditional European society, it’s hard not to appreciate American Exceptionalism. By "exceptional," I don’t mean, as Flint puts it, that America should get exceptions from the rules; frankly, that's a straw man. Like most people who speak of American Exceptionalism, I simply mean that America is different—in a good way—and that it behooves us, therefore, to understand, cherish, and preserve the things that make it different. Through most of world history, not just the seventeenth century, rapine and famine, tyranny and plague were the norm. America changed all that. The difference isn’t merely one of technology, although that plays a part in 1632, making for some incredibly fun (and well-written) battles. More important are differences in institutions and rights, attitudes toward education, and, above all, character. In 1632, a Scottish mercenary who allies with Grantville early on has an opportunity to observe the unique American character at close quarters. The way he sees it, America is, “a nation of commoners…each of which thought like a nobleman…He had never encountered such confident people in his life, and confidence is the most contagious of all diseases.”
Eric Flint is an unapologetic Leftist. He came to writing late in life, after a career as a union activist. According to Wikipedia, he also “worked as a member of the Socialist Workers Party.” His early career is evident in his writing. CEOs of large corporations do not fare well in his hands. Small businessmen and middle managers might grudgingly get a spot at the table with the good guys, but the real heroes of 1632 are unionized coal miners and teachers. As Flint explains in an afterward, one aspect of modern fiction of which he is “more than a little sick and tired” is that “the common folk who built this country and keep it running—blue-collar workers, schoolteachers, and the like—hardly ever appear.” Nor is it an accident that the schoolteachers in the novel are public school teachers. “Public schools…remain the principal forges of America’s youth. Let others whine about their shortcomings and faults, I will not. You can have your damned playing fields of Eton, and all the other varieties of that exclusionary ‘vision.’ I’ll stick with the democratic and plebeian methods which built the American republic, thank you.” Since I am a product of those democratic and plebeian methods, this struck a chord with me.rant, “3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake,” is typical: the United States is nothing more than a nation that enslaved blacks and persecuted Native Americans, without benefiting from the “efficiency of parliamentary systems” to raise taxes and spend more. The world in general and North America in particular would have been better off if the colonists had just turned in their muskets and paid the tax on tea (You know, I’m NOT making this up!).
Flint's worldview hearkens back to an earlier era of the American Left. And while it sometimes seems dated (who refers to feminism as "women's lib" anymore?), it is unabashedly patriotic. Like Howard Fast, in his novel The Crossing, Flint portrays George Washington as a hero, and after all, what better role model for a card-carrying Leftist than a revolutionary? While many of Flint’s political fellow travelers diss the Bill of Rights as the creation of “dead, white, slaveholding males,” Mike Stearns and company make it the cornerstone of their “new” republic: one of the few requirements of citizenship is to hear it recited. While the private sector doesn't seem to exist in the minds of today's Leftists, it saves the citizens of Grantville: Food turns out to be far less of a problem than expected, and one reason for that is trade. The other is hunting, which brings me to...
Guns. It seems like everyone in Grantsville has at least one. The town is an arsenal of hunting rifles, automatic pistols, and sawed-off shotguns. One Vietnam vet even has an M60 machine gun that he liberated upon his discharge from the military. “I figured the Army owed me,” he explains. The head cheerleader, who trained to be an Olympic biathlete, turns out to be a coldly efficient and deadly sniper. I’m not sure how Flint feels about civilians owning guns in the twenty-first century, but it was a damn good thing the citizens of Grantville had them in the seventeenth: badly outnumbered in all of their battles, their most significant tactical advantage lay in rate of fire.
A good novel of ideas must be, first and foremost, a good novel, and that means developing characters who are interesting enough that the reader cares what happens to them. Flint delivers. In my humble opinion, the most compelling characters in the book are not the native-born Americans, good as they are, but rather the immigrants—the characters who, like my own grandparents, had experienced the horrors of Europe and were therefore able to truly appreciate the greatness of America—once they got over their culture shock and came to understand what America was all about. Notable among these characters is Gretchen, the daughter of a German printer who was captured by mercenaries and forced to be their captain’s “concubine” until she was liberated by the Americans. “A steel angel, forged in the Devil’s inferno,” she managed, through sheer force of will, to take care of a baby, a younger sister, a grandmother, and a growing “family” of strays during her captivity. Another notable character: the Jewish philosopher/physician/banker/spy Balthazar Abrabanel, who had been in the audience at the Globe Theater for the premieres of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello and knew for a fact that Shakespeare didn’t write them. As for Balthazar’s beautiful daughter Rebecca, she is without doubt the brains behind the new American government.
1632 was published sixteen years ago. Since then Flint and his collaborators have created an entire Ring of Fire industry, with numerous threads, sequels, and anthologies of short stories. I look forward to getting started on them and learning the further adventures of Gretchen, Balthazar, Rebecca and the other citizens of the United States—Thuringia branch. I hope they will continue to remind us how America is a force for good in the world.
Michael Isenberg is senior editor of Nerds who Read and author of Full Asylum, a novel about the American character. And hospital gowns. Check it out on Amazon.com.