Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Fiction
In 1863, Edward Everett Hale’s short story “The Man Without a Country” was published. Pfarrer has taken that story and turned it into a powerful novel that captures a time long past that still has relevancy today.
During the first decade of the nineteenth century, Aaron Burr plots to invade Spanish territory without any authority to do so. While visiting a fort on the young United States’ frontier, he meets Philip Nolan, a West Point graduate serving as the general’s aide. Philip’s skill in artillery, cartography, and languages makes him a desirable asset, and Burr craftily cultivates him and eventually asks him to deliver correspondence to General James Wilkinson, who governs the Orleans Territory. Burr dictates the letters to Philip, so they are in his handwriting, but at no time does Burr mention “treason,” which Philip would have strongly objected to. He is proud to be an American and devoted in his duty to defend her and the Constitution. But he makes one mistake: he fails to seek permission to leave his post.
Unbeknownst to Burr, Wilkinson looks out for himself and writes to the Mexican viceroy about the plot. Ordered to thwart Burr, Wilkinson arrests Philip on charges of desertion. Burr is eventually tried on charges of treason, but his acquittal angers the public. They want blood and see Philip as the perfect scapegoat, especially after he kills an influential Virginian in a duel. The military court offers Philip the opportunity to plead guilty to manslaughter and, in return, will drop the charges of desertion and sedition. He refuses and is convicted of desertion. When the sentence is read in 1807, Philip feels abandoned and, in his outrage, damns his country and wishes never to hear of it again. The court grants his wish, and he is sent into exile where he is never to hear of or see his country again. And no one, not even his friends or the woman he’s come to care for, may inquire of him or write to him.
But Philip’s punishment isn’t a normal one, for while banished from the United States, he is also not permitted to go where he pleases. Instead he is sent aboard the USS Revenge, and from time to time is transferred from one naval ship to another until 1827 when being confined on the USS Enterprise. The transfer takes place in the harbor of Cadiz, Spain, just as recently promoted Lieutenant Francis Curran joins the Enterprise as she sets sail to hunt Barbary pirates. One of Curran’s duties is to oversee the new prisoner, and the two men form a tenuous friendship that is tested time and again by the pirates. Then an unforeseen encounter with someone from the past unleashes twenty years of bitterness and resentment in Philip, and he strives to find a way to repair the harm he does to Lt. Curran and the officers and men of the Enterprise.
Over the years I’ve acquired many books that I call “keepers” – ones I permanently add to my collection to savor at a later time – but the instant I finished reading Philip Nolan, I wanted to immediately read it again. A momentary lapse in good judgment has a profound and devastating effect, not just on Philip Nolan, but also on the reader. In spite of the complicated threads in the opening chapters setting up the powder keg that finally explodes in the courtroom, Pfarrer spins his tale so artfully that it’s easy to follow the events and understand how and why politics can impact outcomes. But once the story moves to the Enterprise the heart-thumping action captures our attention and makes us forget to breathe. Although we know Nolan’s ultimate fate from the start, how events unfold and how he meets that fate collide in a riveting story of desolation, coping, and patriotism.
Book Review Copyright ©2016 Cindy Vallar
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