Can it really be true that Jimmy Carter is the first president of the United States to publish a novel? So claims a blurb on his new book, and I've no good reason to doubt it. I'm just surprised to be told that, of the 43 (mostly verbose) men who have served as president, only one has produced a work of fiction. But when I shared my surprise with a fellow avid reader, she was nonplussed by the information. Why would presidents bother with novels, she said, when they've already made a career out of uttering fictions?
Point taken. I suppose we're lucky, then, to get our first presidential novel from Carter, who lies less, and writes more, than do most presidents. His 18th book, The Hornet's Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War, is an engaging historical reenactment of how the struggle for independence bubbled up in the colonies that would become the southeast United States.
Carter poked away at the book for seven years, between his other writing and public policy projects. This might explain why the narrative often reads like a sort of travel journal through the American Revolution, with entries spanning the years from 1763 to 1785.
Refreshingly, the story is told as a grassroots chronicle through the eyes of ordinary folks caught up in fateful events, rather than from the perspective of famed and familiar leaders. Carter's characters--pioneer farmers, craftsmen, traders and mothers, along with the occasional slave and native American--aren't heroes, not in the traditional sense. But they are all people who, by force of the brutal circumstances in the British colonies, must make momentous, risky choices if they are to better their lot. For some, the moral questions are especially complex. For example, Carter describes the important but little noted role of Quakers in this region, who abhorred violence but chafed at the injustices around them, from colonial exploitation to economic injustice to slavery.
Still, much of the book is surprisingly light on politics, as Carter seems most determined to portray the realities of life during the late colonial period and the years of rebellion. Mundane struggles get more than equal time with the historic ones, and Carter passes many pages detailing the ways people got by: how they traveled, made clothes, cured meat, courted, worshipped and navigated encounters with other cultures. Some passages, in fact, read like step-by-step tutorials on frontier life, but on most of these topics, Carter exhibits a keen, studied eye, and usually manages to relate the morass of information without breaking the flow of the story. On the whole, The Hornet's Nest brings a hearty and welcome dose of reality to a saga that today is more often told in near-fairy tale terms.
Readers in our region will enjoy the book more than most folks, as some of the most compelling chapters are set in and around Hillsborough, which was a hotbed of revolutionary discontent. Here, especially, Carter does a dandy job of describing how class and religious cleavages caused people to join sides and take up arms. He describes how "The Regulators," a local organization that took early action to press for self-government in these parts, turned from anti-tax petitioning to more violent forms of resistance, and how some prominent citizens, enriched by the colonial system, stayed loyal to England to their bitter end.
Consider just one deliciously local passage that could resonate in other eras: "It was clear that, as in other communities, the powerful families were using every devise to increase their wealth and influence. In Orange County, their procedures were not always legal and proper."
Jimmy Carter will appear for a booksigning at the Regulator Bookshop, Tuesday, Nov. 18 at 6:30 p.m. Call 286-2700 for details.