A Ballad of Love and Glory, by Reyna Grande****

“We Irish know what ’tis like to be oppressed by an aggressive neighbor.”

Reyna Grande can really write. This is the first of her novels I have read, but it surely won’t be the last. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

A Ballad of Love and Glory encompasses two genres, romance and historical fiction. It’s the story of John Riley, an Irish immigrant to the USA in the mid-nineteenth century, who is met at the dock by military recruiters that want him and his compatriots to serve in the US army, fighting the war against Mexico. Riley arrives half-starved and worried sick about the fate of his family that he left behind. The promise of soldier’s wages is enough to persuade him, and he enlists.

It’s also the story of Ximena, a Mexican naturopath whose husband is killed by Texas Rangers. She follows the army to help care for the wounded; she and Riley are drawn together.

As for me, I am drawn to this tale by my love of military history, whether nonfiction or fiction, and by the unconventional point of view regarding the U.S. land grab. At the time of the annexation of Texas, followed by the war against Mexico, most Americans accepted the official explanation and believed that the war was initiated by Mexican aggression toward U.S. citizens across the border. Some, including an up-and-coming politician named Abraham Lincoln, saw threw the ruse and understood that the whole thing was a pretext on the part of the US designed to capture Texas, California, and points in between. This is the background information that I bring with me as I begin reading this novel.

The title and book cover both focus on romance, and if a friend hadn’t mentioned this story, I would have passed it by; most romance is too sappy for my tastes. But an entire brigade of Irish immigrants that jump sides in the midst of the conflict and fight, instead, for Mexico? I have to read this!

Grande honors historical truth in her storytelling, and as such, this is one sad read. The Irish soldiers are treated more savagely by the American-born officers than I had known, and Grande gives us plenty of detail. And although I know, when I begin reading, exactly who wins this war, it’s hard to face the inevitable once I am bonded to these characters.

That said, I do think Grande does a better job with the military end of this thing, and of developing John Riley in other regards, than romance. There’s this tension between Riley and Ximena, because he is a married man with a child back home—and I can guess immediately how this conflict will be resolved. Until that resolution, the tension, part of the “honor” mentioned in the title, is drawn to nearly ridiculous proportions; at one point, as the two are straining passionately toward one another, they both stop simultaneously, whip out their rosaries, and start saying Hail Mary’s together. I threw back my head and laughed!

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful novel. If you enjoy historical fiction; unconventional points of view; working class fiction; or tales of forbidden love, this book is for you. If you are in need of a good ugly cry, this book is your catalyst.

The Crowded Hour, by Clay Risen*****

The Spanish-American War sparked the earliest fire of U.S. imperialism, and the eccentric rich man that pushed it forward, Theodore Roosevelt, was at its center. Risen provides a contemporary view of this badly managed chapter in American history, dispelling longstanding myths and examining the long term effect of the conflict on the U.S. military. My thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the review copy, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. This book is for sale now.

Roosevelt was challenged with a number of health problems as a youngster, but instead of embracing his sedentary, privileged existence, he embarked on a series of physically demanding adventures in order to strengthen his constitution and affirm his masculinity.

When Cuban nationalists sought independence from Spain, Teddy began campaigning for American intervention. Men of his generation was had not known the destruction of lives and property that touched every part of this nation during the American Civil War, and like most young people, they were unwilling to listen to their elders. Roosevelt believed that war was a splendid thing, and that in facing death, men were elevated to a higher level. He joined his voice to those in the press advocating military aid to Cuba, and after tapping every powerful connection his wealthy family could access, he was successful.

 His own unit—all volunteers—were dubbed the “Rough Riders.” Most had no military training of any kind; the mighty Union Army had been all but disbanded once the nation was reunited. Though they were promoted as cowboys, the rugged individuals of the Wild West, a goodly number hailed from Wall Street and Harvard. In addition to being able to fund their own wartime excursion, they were noteworthy in their riding capability.

There was no San Juan Hill. There was a series of them.

The American invasion of Cuba cast a spotlight on its unpreparedness. Transporting troops, beasts and equipment across the Atlantic was a debacle of the worst order. There weren’t even close to enough seaworthy vessels, and because of this, most of the so-called cowboys fought on foot the entire time; horses and mules were stuck back in Tampa waiting to sail. There wasn’t enough food, potable water, or appropriate clothing for most of the men; the wealthiest among them fared best, but there were many occasions when there wasn’t any food to be bought at any price. There had been no reconnaissance and so they went in blind; the heat and disease killed more Americans than the Spaniards did. Vultures and immense land crabs that measured 2 feet across and traveled by the thousands made short work of the dead when not buried immediately. American losses were nearly triple those of the Spanish, and when the war ended there were no hospitals or sanitation ready to receive the legions of sick and wounded when they returned from the Caribbean.  

Roosevelt used the occasion to point to the need for a standing army and U.S. readiness, and ultimately this was his one useful contribution. In other regards, the man was an ass hat. His bald-faced racism, though not unusual at the time, went over badly with the Cuban freedom fighters that were supposed to benefit from their presence. He crowed to his friends about how much he enjoyed shooting an enemy soldier from just a few feet away “like a jackrabbit,” and called his 45 days of combat the ultimate hunting trip. Mark Twain hated the guy, and it’s not hard to see why.

Risen has an engaging writing style, and he uses lots of well-chosen quotations. His research is excellent as are his sources. I would have liked to see more of a breakdown along the lines of social class and other demographics, but this war did not yield a rich archival treasury like the one that came from the Civil War, so this may not be possible.

All told, this history is a find. Right now it seems that every second historian on the planet is writing about World War II, whereas this cringeworthy but significant chapter of American history has been largely left by the wayside.  I highly recommend this book.

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochchild *****

Just as Europeans once looked upon the Americas as land that was unclaimed and waiting to be discovered, explored, and claimed by Caucasian Christian civilizations, so too was Africa, referred to as “The Dark Continent”, ripe for exploitation when the Europeans arrived.

Initially, through their own caste system, tribal chiefs were absolutely delighted to trade away the Africans they themselves kept in bondage for the wonderful new munitions, cloth, and other goods that were offered. But their satisfaction turned to horror when they learned that where Black folks are concerned, Europeans just don’t play by the rules. King Affonso of the Congo sat down and wrote a letter to the ruler of Portugal, explaining that he had sent his son to Europe to attend school, and he was never heard from again. Now he has learned that his own family members were being rounded up by slave traders! There must surely be some sort of mistake.

African missionary, explorer, and British emissary Dr. David Livingstone traveled to Africa and was the first known (at the time) European to cross Africa from coast to coast. He returned to England to be feted and celebrated, and then plunged back into Africa…and stayed there. He was happy. Why go home?

Henry Morton Stanley was a journalist of uncertain origins (see the book) who went in search of Livingstone and found him, uttering the famous quote, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Meanwhile, a royal in Belgium grew restless. Leopold had delusions of grandeur, and why not? If France, England, and Spain could enjoy colonialism, why not Belgium as well? Leopold thirsted for power. He wanted to become a king. As African territory was snapped up piecemeal, he leapt in and grabbed a slice through the middle, in what would for a time be known as the “Belgian Congo”.

By now, slavery had been declared illegal in Britain, and so Leopold strode in to civilize and Christianize dark-skinned people whom he was certain could not do so for themselves. A great road was built there…and it went straight in from the ocean, and straight back out again. Leopold had learned of the ivory to be obtained through the wholesale slaughter of elephants. He offered prizes to locals who brought these forward, and assured them they would be protected from the aggression of any other European powers. What a deal. Leopold sponsored Stanley and gave him the royal seal of approval when he went in to further explore the area. In the end, Leopold claimed all of the Congo, an area, says the author, the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River. Many different tribes and cultures, some peaceful, some not, were brought under his ruthless leadership.

Leopold himself was almost a perfect villain, obsessed with power and obnoxious even to other Europeans of his time and station. When Prince Albert visited the new palace Leopold was having built, he believed he was complimenting the man when he said it would be like “a little Versailles”. Leopold took offense instead. “Little?”

But as amusing as anecdotes like this one are, the brutal fact is that tens of millions of Africans were killed under European colonialism. When Belgium was more or less forced to grant sovereignty to the people of the Congo, he sabotaged the new government of Patrice Lumumba, a popularly elected leader, by refusing to let go of the mines where the remaining mineral riches of the nation were located. The United States helped him crucify this man and was party to the manipulation of tribal rivals. Wholesale slaughter of unimaginable cruelty ensued. Multinational corporations were “also in on the take”.

Though this is a painstakingly written and riveting account, and the research undeniably fastidious, well documented, and scholarly, I would differ with the lame conclusions drawn at the end, namely that the United Nations should have sent in a peacekeeping force during the transition. Who is in the United Nations? Britain and the US, for starters? What a pitiful conclusion to an otherwise brilliant book. I know that if Malcolm X were here, he’d say this was “like leaving the fox to guard the hen house.” For this reason, I considered giving four stars. It’s just too well done otherwise to deny it all five, with this caveat: those final two pages of conclusions should cause any reader who makes it this far down in my review to understand I really mean, four and a half stars.

I say the only way the Congo or any other African nation can rule itself is for colonial powers to get out. Go home. There is nothing there that they own anymore; it’s over. Africans can rule Africa, as long as colonialists let go of the entire pie.