Arundel by Kenneth Roberts: human passion in a merciless landscape

ArundelArundel by Kenneth Roberts
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is how novels are supposed to be.

I came across this book by way of the Goodreads recommendation engine, which presented it to me when I was searching for “epics.” The American Revolutionary War is far out of my time zone with respect to my own epic in progress, but since true epics are about the birth of nations and societies, and this book seemed to be very favorably viewed by critics, I thought I would give it a chance.

Am I ever glad I did. As soon as I downloaded the e-book to my Kindle and started reading the prologue, I was drawn in. The narrator and central character is one Steven Nason of Arundel (modern Kennebunkport) in the province of Maine, who, against his natural inclinations, is writing a book describing his role in Benedict Arnold’s 1775 expedition to Quebec. He is driven reluctantly to this task by the grossly inaccurate tales that are current about the expedition and its members; he feels driven to set the record straight. In his own words:

Above all, because of the lamentable occurrences at West Point, the countryside is filled with men of mighty hindsight who speak with scorn of Colonel Arnold, whose boots they were not fit to clean, and belittle or ignore the expedition to Quebec.

What follows is a stirring tale of adventure, courage, passion, and humor, filled with surprises of all kinds.

For reasons that in time are revealed, Nason starts the story in his own boyhood, describing the circumstances that brought his father, a blacksmith, to settle on the bank of the Arundel River, and describing his family’s way of life there. Everything about it is striking and has the stamp of authenticity (the author, Kenneth Roberts, was something like a fourth-generation native of Maine): the trees, the weather, the ocean, the food, down to delightful surprises like young Steven’s pet seal Eunice. These are frontier people, and in fact their property is surrounded by a palisade and he refers to their residence as a “garrison house.” Steven’s family are in close, intimate contact with the Abenakis, the local Indians.

Indian characters and lifeways form a big part of the story. Roberts swings a wrecking-ball through the cliches of Indian-European relations and shows frontier society as a place where these two cultural groups collided, intermingled, interacted, and interbred. The Indian characters, like the white characters, are all distinct, vividly portrayed individuals with their own foibles and strengths. There is no monolithic them-versus-us consciousness, but rather a sense of individuals and groups acting from diverse motives as events swirl around them. When some Indians join the expedition to Quebec, their motives vary from personal loyalty to monetary gain to political calculation, among other things. In a book filled with memorable characters, one of the most vivid for me was the Indian Natanis, a superb woodsman who forms a strong bond with Steven and becomes an unsung hero of the expedition.

Another memorable character is Benedict Arnold, stocky, athletic, temperamental, and passionate. Nowadays his name is proverbial for treachery, and indeed I knew nothing else about him but that, but in this story we see a man of shrewdness and courage, a natural leader whom Steven regards as second only to George Washington as a model officer.

In brief, the story documents how Steven is engaged as a guide to the expedition, and how he travels with 1,000-odd ragtag American troops through the wilderness of Maine to reach Quebec City, which has been captured by the British. Among those who go with him are his burly, thieving friend Cap Huff, and a diminutive but resourceful and sharp-tongued local girl named Phoebe. Steven’s own motivation is mostly personal: he knows that a girl he met in childhood, Mary Mallinson, is being held in Quebec and he intends to rescue her.

Everyone knew that the expedition would be no cakewalk, but no one expected the indescribable ordeal that they actually face. Much of the novel is an account of that ordeal, and it is an amazing survival story, mixed in with a lot of infighting, intrigue, and suspicion.

The quality of the writing itself is very high. Roberts is an intelligent, confident stylist who did a huge amount of research to get every detail right—and there are a lot of details. So everything has that wonderful, fresh, lifelike quality: unexpected but true. Steven Nason is a perfect narrator; he has great knowledge of what he’s talking about, and a strong point of view that he’s not shy about expressing. His plainspoken woodsman’s perspective is often in contrast to the preening and dandyism of the more citified people he comes in contact with. Churlish and tongue-tied around women, he’s incapable of expressing what he really feels. He needs their help.

In sum, this is one of the best novels I have ever read. If I had to hunt for flaws in it, I might say that there was perhaps a bit much wilderness adventure for my taste. But it is a story of an expedition, after all—and it does pay off. This novel was published in 1930 and is about events in the 18th century, but it reads as though it were published yesterday and relates events that happened the day before that. The characters are vivid, present, and timeless. This must be what classic means, if it means anything.

I serve notice to all my own readers, present and future: Kenneth Roberts is my role model. He is the standard I agree to be judged against. I won’t measure up, but I will try.

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