Rabble in Arms stands out from other novels set in the Revolution because of its humor. But it was not written simply to entertain. Roberts had something to say. It was a message that he wanted profoundly to deliver and something he believed deeply to be worth saying. Before Benedict Arnold was seduced by his wife into defecting to the British and becoming the greatest traitor in American history, he was the American Revolution’s greatest fighting general. He was persecuted by false rumors, backstabbed by lesser men, and frustrated by the “pettiness, timidity, inefficiency, futility and hesitation” of the Continental Congress. But he was not brought down simply by bad luck. Arnold’s tragic flaw was his inability to consider the ego any man other than himself. This is what led to his persecution and ultimately to his historic crime, and the foreshadowing of his downfall is a theme that runs throughout the length and breadth this long and fascinating novel.
The story starts in Roberts’ home state of Maine, and many of his characters are caricatures of the salty, cranky and snarky people of New England. “Did you see that, old Catamount?... I got him right under the shoulder.”… “He was mine… I held right on him!” …[His friend replies] “Like hell you did! I was holding right on him my own self! He showed up big as a horse between my sights!”… [The first responds] “all right! I bet you don’t dast to call your shots after this!” These characters reflect people Roberts knew, friends and neighbors. They speak an exotic language and their humor reflects a life that is often stark and grim. But as well, they are a warm-blooded people who are hard to lead, hard to deceive, and hard to enslave.
When danger threatens, Roberts’ language cannot help but generate hair-raising suspense. “The musket-fire stopped as suddenly as it had started. Then there was more yelling – prolonged, quavering, exultant Indian whoops, followed by silence. It was an uncanny silence, unbroken by musket-shot or voice, or by the song of any bird.” On a visit to a military hospital, Arnold turns his excess of energy on the doctors. “Charlatans! … Empirics! Not a doctor among you that knows what he’s doing or why he does it! Why don’t you learn your trade, so you won’t have to spend your life guessing, guessing, guessing! A set of charlatans and empirics: that’s what you are!”
Beyond Arnold’s trials and tribulations, there is a larger theme in Rabble in Arms. There is a dark reality of the Revolution that has turned many historians and novelists into lawyers and beauticians. The Thirteen Colonies did not so much win their independence by the courage and determination of its soldiers. Liberty was achieved in spite of the nation’s bunglers, reputation-seekers, profiteers and traitors. They succeeded even though their armies were often little more than a rabble in arms. But is this something to be ashamed of? Does their amateurism, indecision and infighting need to be concealed under a cover of neatly dressed minutemen, saintly founding fathers and coquettish maids sewing flags?
Rabble in Arms (1933) was a sequel to Arundel (1930) which tells the story of Steven Nason who marched with Aaron Burr on Benedict Arnold’s fateful 1775 invasion of Quebec.
Moderate violence. No disturbing content. P.C.
Available in audiobook format.
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