Frontier Partisans reader Monk has scouted up a forthcoming tome that is going to send me on a good three-day bender come the end of February. A Tip o’ the Baldwin Hat to him for this shot straight into the Frontier Partisans x-ring.
Spanning 13 years, two continents, several wars, and many smoke-filled and bloody battlefields, John Sayles’s thrilling historical and cinematic epic invites comparison with Diana Gabaldon, George R. R. Martin, Phillippa Gregory, and Charles Dickens.
It begins in the highlands of Scotland in 1746, at the Battle of Culloden, the last desperate stand of the Stuart ‘pretender’ to the throne of the Three Kingdoms, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and his rabidly loyal supporters. Vanquished with his comrades by the forces of the Hanoverian (and Protestant) British crown, the novel’s eponymous hero, Jamie MacGillivray, narrowly escapes a roadside execution only to be recaptured by the victors and shipped to Marshalsea Prison (central to Charles Dickens’s Hard Times) where he cheats the hangman a second time before being sentenced to transportation and indentured servitude in colonial America “for the term of his natural life.” His travels are paralleled by those of Jenny Ferguson, a poor, village girl swept up on false charges by the English and also sent in chains to the New World.
The novel follows Jamie and Jenny through servitude, revolt, escape, and romantic entanglements — pawns in a deadly game. The two continue to cross paths with each other and with some of the leading figures of the era- the devious Lord Lovat, future novelist Henry Fielding, the artist William Hogarth, a young and ambitious George Washington, the doomed General James Wolfe, and the Lenape chief feared throughout the Ohio Valley as Shingas the Terrible.
This is big for me. Sayles is a real-deal storyteller, who made a go of it as an independent filmmaker against all odds. Matewan is a powerful tale of the coal wars in West Virginia in the 1920s, and it hit me like a fully loaded railcar when it came out in 1987. His 2010 film Amigo took on the ugly morass of the U.S. war in the Philippines at the end of the 19th century — a very dirty war of frontier and empire that I plan to return to one day. And Lone Star is a compelling contemporary border noir. With his track record, I expect Sayles to deliver legit history in a hard-hitting story.
As we Frontier Partisans know, the actual history is compelling beyond anything that can be manufactured. Sayles gets that. As he told Publisher’s Weekly:
“Sometimes you write something and try to justify it in the history,” he says. “But the history is so interesting to me. I prefer to follow the history itself.”
He’s indicated that he will not flinch from the hard core violence of the era. From Publisher’s Weekly:
One thing Sayles was struck by during his research was the amount of violence that occurred during this period. Yes, the book begins with a battle, but the violence continues pages and pages after that…
“The violence really did happen,” Sayles says. “One question I wanted to bring up was, Who are the real savages here? Violence was just the way things got done back then, whether it was in Europe with warlords and the divine right of kings, or in the New World where tribes had long-standing feuds against each other and engaged in violent land grabs. The violence is there because that was what life was like back then.”
The violence in Jamie MacGillivray is in no way gratuitous—it’s vital to the story itself, and true to the period. Sayles focuses on how the characters react to violence, and that drives a lot of the action throughout the book.
“A lot of this story is about survival, and what people will do to survive,” he says. Both Jamie and Jenny are forced to adapt to extreme situations after becoming prisoners in America.
This entices me:
In trying to capture the period authentically, Sayles goes so far as to write in the various languages of the groups represented. In addition to English, Sayles includes Scottish Gaelic, French, and various Native American languages throughout—and sometimes doesn’t offer any translation.
“When you’re writing a book,” Sayles says, “there aren’t going to be any subtitles.” However, he provides enough context that the reader isn’t left totally confused. Adopting new languages is also a crucial way to survive in the novel.
“Jamie is essentially a slave to the Leni Lenape,” he explains. “He realizes, ‘If I’m going to have any status with these people maybe I better pay attention and learn the language.’ ” Jamie starts out as a warrior, but he’s intelligent, too.
“I really didn’t want the Indians to sound like 1950s MGM-style Indians,” Sayles says. “They have this beautiful, metaphoric language. You get metaphors like ‘a tree has fallen on the path between us.’ I realized the Native Americans weren’t struggling to form a language.”
I will have to restrain myself from carving notches in a stick for every day between now and February 28. Fortunately, I’ve got me a historical tale of me own to tell between now and then. King Philip’s War will keep me fully occupied until I embark on The Renegade’s Journey…