Book Review: Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin.

Paperback: 312 pages
Publisher: Dry Wall Publishing (7 Jan. 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0992127505

What if Napoleon had escaped after Waterloo? Some people ask me.
“He’d have gone to America” I say. It’s an easy question to answer because the motives of the emperor at that time were still clear and his power of choice was still his own. Most people do not ask, what if Napoleon had escaped from St Helena.

Napoleon lead a life of escapes. First from Corsica and obscurity, then from temporary fame to immortality, then from Elba and ignominy, but he could not escape from St Helena and due to the impossibility of constructing a plausible escape, Shannon Selin cleverly does not focus on any wild scheme of escape plan in her book Napoleon in America.

It is book of giant scope. More so than one might assume. Naively we ask “what if Napoleon escaped?” But that is just the beginning, for this one event would effect every statesman in Europe. All well and good to say what if Napoleon got away, but then we must ask, what would the reaction be?
A thousand cans of a thousand worms are let open by this one action, and Selin demonstrates a cool mastery over each response. Creating a highly believable, authentic and not too far fetched or overblown scenario that is almost at the other extreme understated rather than implausible.

Populated by real people, speaking much as they might have, with scrupulous adherence to their historical beliefs, each new figure is a brilliantly researched vignette. For an instance I think that General Foy’s wounded shoulder, inadvertently flinching at the word Waterloo is an excellent touch and demonstrates the kind of sensitivity and scholarship at play here.

Napoleon is particularly well drawn, displaying a good blend of loud and quiet moments. He is always speaking in proverbs and quotable blurbs, acting like a “baby of 52” to quote one character, setting out for a quiet existence in exile, yet slowly becoming more and more active, following his old pattern. We are drawn on here, fascinated to see Selin’s vision for her very plausible Napoleon, and where it will lead. Now that history had changed questions pile up upon one another compelling people like me to follow his path.

Part way through it starts to become clear that Napoleon is being drawn closer and closer towards the Latin American states then in revolution. Specifically, as many in America did at the time, he looks to Texas as an opportunity. Napoleon spends most of the time as a sort of portrait, yet every now and then we see some brave incursions into his psychology. Where he finally gives up the pretence of living in peaceful exile, he rails at his brother Joseph that if he had stayed and died on St Helena his martyrdom would have secured a crown for his son than vegetate as a nothingness relic in America.

Selin cleverly asks nothing of her carachters that they would not likely have done. Thus we are not asked to believe anything too great. Napoleon acts much as he did in 1814-15, at first affecting a genuine tiredness of public life and adventure, then becoming restless, then looking for an excuse to return to a leading role.

At the same time real events roll onwards. Adding a layer of realism to the plot, which comes in handy when one tries to visualise Napoleon smoking a peace pipe with an Indian chief as he marches into Texas, leading a ragtag army of exiles and adventurers which include Jean Laffite and Jim Bowie into what was then a Mexican no mans land. The narrative builds slowly, an annoyance to some, but a pleasure for myself and those who savour details.

Could what unfolds be done? Well the nice thing about alternate history is that anything is possible, but this is also plausible. If Napoleon, or anybody with a mind had gathered 2,500 men and marched into Texas, the USA would have been hard pressed to oppose it. Their army was pitifully reduced, with not a cavalry regiment to its name, spread in among a wide string of isolated forts and garrisons. In Mexico the province of Texas was famously sparse in population and even fewer in troops, the Spanish would be in no position to intervene. So actually this seemingly crazy idea could have been pulled off, at least in the short term.

The military aspects, as with all the elements of the book are realistic & well thought out. Disease, desertion & human error abound.

Shanon Selin is a brilliant researcher. Her blog is a model of howninternet history should be presented. The book is therefore heavy on history, and although the story is strong enough to support it, at times you’d be fooled into thinking this was a nonfiction alternate history book. The author is therefore to be congratulated for successfully blurring the line between reality and fiction, which is what every historical author strives to do. And just to prove it there is an extensive source list and character list in the back.

The book ends with a bang, and the promise of unfinished business. All in all I’d say this is the best alternate historical fiction I’ve read since Gettysburg.

Josh

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