Sometimes, I'll be reading a novel and get to some worrisome plot twist. The characters I've come to love are in jeopardy, and -- the tension is too great for me. I put the book down and call someone I trust who can reassure me that I should keep on reading anyway. Sometimes, they don't reassure me. "Yeah, that book is simply not worth the time." So then I go read something else.
When I chose to read 1776, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to have to worry about the plot. After all, here we all are seven years after 9-11. Or, most of us at least... Obviously, I remembered that there had been an American Revolution, which was a war. And that people fought and died to create our nation. But the number 1776 had always had very positive associations for me. Declaration of Independence. "Give me liberty or give me death." Etc. etc.
I tried to persuade my very sensitive 13 year old to read 1776 with me. "I think it might be pretty depressing," she said. She was right. Depressing. Harrowing in fact. But well worth reading.
And come to think of it, on this the seventh anniversary of 9-11, I'm not actually certain that the American Story has a happy ending. That we are actively dealing with the very Real Problems we Americans face. Reality is harrowing. Still. And needs to be faced even when there is a woman who shoots moose from airplanes and arbitrarily fires those who cross her running for election as vice president of the United States.
The happiest thing I took away from 1776 was the stories of the famous and not-so-famous men who led the American and British troops. All of whom, leaders and troops, suffered and learned from their terrible mistakes, if they survived.
I was very impressed with how certain these guys, on both sides, were of the importance of their cause. In particular, I was astonished by the Americans, who, even before the Declaration of Independence was published, thought of themselves as Americans. Believed that they needed to establish a democracy, even though no country of this type had ever existed on Earth before. Believed that they and those they lead needed to fight and possibly die for a concept that had never been tried in the world before.
McCullough plunks us into the mind of George Washington just as he has become Commander of the American army. We don't learn much about how he came to be in this position. We only learn that the Continental Congress seemed to place great trust in him, but that there was simply not money enough for them to pay for the army he needed. And that others felt that Washington was not the right choice.
As for Washington himself, he seems to have felt qualified for the task he'd undertaken, but very aware of the terrible consequences of the mistakes he made. That death and disease, starvation and freezing, rape and pillage, of both troops and American non-combatants were the necessary accompaniments to war were always on his mind. And yet he fought on.
McCullough is also very, very good at describing the military implications of the geography, topography, and troop configurations prevailing before each military encounter. He's fantastic at signaling us early on when a general is about to make a grave mistake. Makes it easier for a reader like me who may get overwhelmed by worry to prepare for bad news.
This is not a book for the sensitive reader. But I am so glad that I read it.