Record" Book Review April 24, 2009|
Book Review By Mike McDevitt
"Living as we do in this bucolic out of the way rural setting, it is easy to assume that History is something that happens somewhere else - in foreign countries or major cities. But occasionally the big bad world does manage to infiltrate our pastoral serenity and inflict itself upon us. As the world gets smaller, world events can intrude more forcefully, and more often, than they once did, but even in the distant past, the world had a way of breaching our rural isolation.
Such is the case of the story recounted in this novel by Knowlton resident Donald Davison.
Davison's book is a fictional retelling of a little known incident in local history when the approaching end to the Civil War saw desperate attempts by Southern die-hards to disrupt the peaceful life of the Northern States - in this case, by raiding the banks of St. Alban's Vt. and using Canadian soil to do it.
Davison begins his tale by pointing out that while the leading characters in the story are real, and the actual details of the raid are well documented, a compelling narrative demanded a fictionalized presentation of events for which there is no record.
What compelled the raiders? What motivated others who became involved? Altogether, fact and fiction make for a highly readable and informative retelling of a little known sidebar to a major military conflict.
The story in and of itself is not particularly spectacular, Southern raiders often attacked banks, trains and other northern institutions during the war, both in an attempt to disrupt the business life of the Union, and to avenge the destruction caused by General Phillip Sheridan's "ravaging of the Shenandoah."
Davison offers other less grandiose motivations for the rebels, themselves primarily a bunch of Kentucky farm boys.
The Confederacy also tried to use Canada's neutrality in the war for its own benefit - a fact not lost on the Union and which caused considerable difficulty for both Canada and Great Britain, as the latter's neutrality did not obviate it's addiction to southern cotton.
Canadian tensions were no small part in the movement towards Confederation. Some speculated that an American invasion could happen immediately after the Southern surrender.
For the local reader however, much of the charm of this story comes from the fact that the action takes place right here in the Eastern Townships, most particularly in places like Frelighsburg, Sutton, Knowlton Landing and Magog, to name just a few.
It's always a treat to identify with the locations of important events and Davison does a magnificent job of not only presenting the beauty and tranquility of the landscape, but also of providing some wonderful insights into the way people lived and thought in this area, when settlements were young.
From these almost modern eyes, the most compelling aspect of the entire story lies in the revelation of the radically different transportation systems that defined this part of the world in the middle of the last century. Since modern highways have blasted their straight lines through rocks and over rivers, we have a tendency to forget that our ancestors traveled different routes. They followed rather than challenged the natural landscape. As a result, roads and railroads were springing up like dandelions.
This is a good read; detailed without being oppressive and wonderfully illustrated to help the reader maintain his bearings. For anyone with an historical fondness for this region this book should be a must."
Mike McDevitt - "Sherbrooke Record" Book Review April 24, 2009
"Quebec Heritage News" Book Review Jan-Feb 2009 Black History Month Edition
Book Review By Rod MacLeod
"I don't know if any of you noticed this, but a new president of the United States of America has recently assumed office. And he's Black.
Of course, this shouldn't be an issue. The skin colour, ethnic origin, religion and gender of any political figure should be of no importance, and if we lived in a truly liberal and multicultural society it wouldn't be. Martin Luther King's dream that all of this sort of thing one day wouldn't matter is clearly still that: a dream. Even so, when African Americans celebrate that "one of us" got into the White House, and when non-African-Americans and, indeed, people of good w311 around the world celebrate alongside them. it's a wonderful thing. The earth has shifted. King's dream is one giant step closer to reality.
Obama's election, as he implied in his inaugural address, would have come as a great surprise to his own grandfather who could not have been served in stores and restaurants across large parts of the United States of America.
It would also have come as a surprise, or maybe a painful shock, to Bennett Young, leader of the "northernmost battle of the American Civil War" and one of the principal characters of Donald .1. Davison's recent book on the raid on St Alban's. Vermont.
Young was an officer in the Confederate army who had escaped capture by fleeing to neutral Canada, from which base he plotted the raid across the border as a means to sew confusion and, with stolen money, help bankroll the fading Rebel Cause.
He hailed from Kentucky. a state that was technically neutral during the war, and his background was modest. According to Davison, Young was raised like "the majority of Kentuckians" - free Kentuckians, 1 assume -- "on small farnis with one or two slaves."
The right to own slaves - one, two, or hundreds - was arguably the most significant thing that people like Young were fighting for.
The St Alban's Raid is fairly well known, but it is brought effectively to life by Davison, who originally from Hudson, Quebec, is now retired and living in Knowlton after a career as a financial counsellor. t certainly applaud Davison's second career as a writer, particularly given the obvious expertise lie brings to it. One of the things I enjoyed about this book was the detail about banking and currency, which may not sound very exciting but is an important part of the minutiae of this kind of story. As anyone who has ever tried to cash a traveller's cheque in the U.S. can attest, the American banking system is a complicated one. Anyone who tried to rob a bank in the 1860s would also probably agree.
The book's storyline begins in Montreal where Young and his twenty southern gentlemen (some lit that description, but others are much less couth) planned the raid in exile, then moves to St AIban's where they pose as tourists: Young passed himself off as an itinerant preacher.
After robbing several banks in the town, engaging in gunfire with locals, and killing at least one man, they rode madly off in all the directions that led to Canada, and we follow the adventures of each of the rebel "sections" (4-man gangs) as they struggle to reach such havens as Stanbridge Fast, Frelighsburg, Dunham, and Abbott's Corners.
Almost all of them were captured by troops of the Canadian Militia, much to the irritation of a posse sent from St Alban's and of the Union government in general. The prisoners were put on trial in Montreal where large numbers of people hailed them as heroes, though others saw them more as notorious gangsters; in either case, crowd control was an issue for local authorities. Arguing that the men had been involved in military rather than criminal activity, the defence proved successful and all of them, including Young, were freed.
For me, the legal issue was the most interesting part of the story, and one that I wish Davison had dwelt on a little more directly and forcefully. The motivations of Canadian legal and military authorities are not clear in the book. Although the tension between posse and militia over areas of jurisdiction is shown, the latter seem keen to arrest the rebels as obvious criminals. Yet, the freeing of the prisoners led to the accusation that judge, police and militia were conspiring to keep the rebels out of the hands of the Unionists for whom they were prisoners of war.
Much has been written about Canada's attitude towards the Civil War, including the view that, for strategic reasons at least, it was inclined to side with the South. For the militia rather than the posse to arrest the St Alban's raiders, and for the Canadian court to free them, was either a travesty Of justice or an unconscionable breach of neutrality.
Davison keeps his cards close to his chest on this issue; I would rather lie had contributed to the debate by taking a stand rather than glossing it over.
You will notice I have not described this book as a work of history, even though it is. The title page presents it as a novel - which it isn't really, although it is a fictional account. By that I mean that it works the way a great many histories have worked, at least until the age of modern academia which has drawn a line between two genres.
We tend to see fiction as something that isn't true, which does a terrible disservice to literature. Fiction is really a genre, the telling of a story (including true stories) using a number of devices such as dialogue and point of view -typically found in novels, but also in much classical history. Davison tells this story by providing physical details about his characters and having them engage in dialogue.
However, we don't get much in the way of tension or conflict (other than when people shoot at each other) which is the mainstay of novels. But it isn't dry analytical history either; in fact, Davison's style works rather well ior his subject by engagingly narrating events. and providing lists, maps, and illustrations along the way, without the sort of reflection that I associate with academic history. and missed only when it came to the legal issue at the end.
I mention all this test anyone approach this book expecting a kind of military thriller. But anyone seeking a straightforward and sympathetic account of the St Alban's raid, however. would do well to read Raise the Flag and Sound the Cannon.
By "sympathetic"' I don't mean that Davison approves of the rebels' actions but the men are presented as human beings, with human weaknesses. To them, the actions of the Northern army, especially those of General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley (which admittedly don't exactly rank up there with history's great philanthropic gestures), as atrocities to be revenged. In one telling moment Davison describes Young et al's astonishment at coming across a village where people are celebrating Sheridan's victories. !t had apparently never occurred to Southerners that there was anything wrong with their cause -- and the same is true, of course, for the bad guys in any conflict.
Apart from the reference to the one or two slaves belonging to the average Kentuckian, there is only one Black person in the book, a small boy who peers out at one of the rebel groups as they approach a village near the Canadian border and after hearing their Southern accent runs very quickly away.
This tiny incident speaks volumes. Although the rebels wonder briefly what the boy, obviously a fellow southerner, was doing so far north, they are far more concerned with getting to safety with their loot.
Bennett Young and his followers, along with a great many Canadians, did their best to destroy any possibility of Marlin Luther King's dream becoming reality. That battle is still going on. But we can now say with confidence that the great, great. great grandson of that boy could grow up to become president of the United States."
Reviewed by Rod MacLeod - "Quebec Heritage News" Book Review Jan-Feb 2009 Black History Month Edition