In the first two years of the American Revolution, Benedict Arnold demonstrated his charisma and courage in his expedition to Quebec, his naval command on Lake Champlain, and in his spectacular battlefield leadership at Saratoga. This was before America’s most admired battlefield commander was seduced by his wife into defecting to the British, and thus into becoming the greatest traitor in American history. Though he was American Revolution’s greatest fighting general, Arnold was persecuted by false rumors, backstabbed by lesser men, and frustrated by the “pettiness, timidity, inefficiency, futility, and hesitation,” of the Continental Congress. However, he was not brought down simply because of bad luck, but rather by his inability to consider the ego of any man other than himself. This tragic flaw led to his persecution and ultimately to his historic crime. The foreshadowing of his downfall is a theme that runs throughout the length and breadth of 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, snarky men 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 comrade replies.]
“Like hell you did! I was holding right on him my own self! He showed up as big as a horse between my sights!”
“All right! I bet you don’t dast to call your shots after this!”
These characters are modeled on people Roberts knew, his friends and neighbors. They speak an exotic language and their humor reflects a life that is often stark and grim. Yet, they are a warm-blooded people, who are hard to lead, hard to deceive, and hard to enslave.
When danger threatens, Roberts’ language can 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 excessive 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!”
Rabble in Arms stand out from other novels set during the Revolution by the incorporation of humor, coming from the characters and the narrator. Yet it was not a novel written simply to entertain. Roberts had something to say. It was a message he profoundly wanted to deliver and something he deeply believed to be worth saying. Beyond Arnold’s trials and tribulations, there is a larger theme throughout Rabble in Arms. There is the dark reality of the Revolution that has turned so many historians and novelists into lawyers and beauticians. The Thirteen Colonies did not win their independence solely by the courage and determination of their 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. Yet is this reality something to be ashamed of? Does the amateurism, indecision, and infighting need to be concealed under a gloss of neatly dressed minutemen, saintly Founding Fathers and coquettish maids sewing flags?
Second in a trilogy.
Moderate violence. No disturbing content. P.C.
Available in audiobook format.
Kenneth Roberts on Wikipedia (click here)