December Book Reviews
By Prof. Rick Norton
Happy holidays! For most, if not all of us, December is a month of celebrations,
getting together with friends and families, special religious events, and, the giving and
receiving of presents. The present business can be tough from two perspectives - getting
someone a gift they will like and trying to let Aunt Hermione know that you really would
like something other than a subscription to "Tin Miner's Weekly" or yet another bow tie
that lights up and plays music.
To make your life easier I offer the following four works for consideration. All
are reasonable priced - well, pretty much so. All are in publication. All are works of
quality and all, in my opinion, belong on the bookshelf of any colonial gamer. They
make great gifts for the hobbyist who is just starting out, or the seasoned gamer who is
branching into a new area.
"Queen Victoria's Little Wars,"by Byron Farwell. (New York: W.W.
Norton& Company, 1972), 394 pages, $15.99 US, ISBN: 0-393-30235
"Queen Victoria's Little Wars," is the best vehicle I know to introduce someone to
military aspects of the Victorian age. Farwell is a gifted and talented writer and his
words carry no trace of an "academic" accent. That said, his research is sound and he is a
respected authority on the period.
This book is an overview, loosely arranged in chronological order from the first
shots of Victoria's reign in 1837 to the end of the Boer War. Farwell blends social with
military history in a masterful style, not neglecting to provide biographical data on the
more interesting military figures of the day. He doesn't forget a major campaign or
important battle. These include the Opium Wars of the 1840s, the Crimean War, and the
Ashanti and Zulu wars. He details campaigns in Canada and India, Burma and South
Along the way he sheds light on the British regimental system and the structure of
Victoria's Army. He reveals some of the political intrigues that led to several of the
conflicts in the book. And he manages to be objective without becoming dry.
Those readers who are already immersed in the period and complain that the book
is too shallow, are, I believe, missing the point. This is a work of introduction and basic
reference. It was never meant to be more than that. And it does what Farwell wanted it
to do. No colonial library should be without it,
"The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan," by Winston S.
Churchill (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 2000) 381 pages, $14.00 U.S.,
No Victorian wrote a better description of history than Winston Churchill. Some, it
might be argued, wrote as well, but none wrote better. He was a lyrical master of the pen
and for most of his life words were an essential tool of his profession. This book is more
than history; it is literature, expressed in the voice of one of the most fascinating
individuals of his generation. (Is that too effusive? Churchill would likely think not
enough by half.)
Like any proper Victorian officer Churchill thirsted for glory. Unlike many, he
was prepared to leave the Army at an early age and have a go at politics - although he
never truly abandoned his martial calling. And when it came to getting where the action
was, no string was too weak to be pulled. The strongest were pulled by his mother.
And thus when it was decided that Kitchner, the Sirdar of Egypt would retake the
Sudan and avenge the death of General Gordon, young Lieutenant Churchill would
accompany the 21st Lancers on the last great charge made by British cavalry and serve as
special correspondent to several London papers.
But Churchill's book is more than a journalist's account strung together. It is a
contemporary Victorian literary work, told by a fierce Imperialist, a man who saw
evidence of divine blessing in what he believed to be Britain's salvation of the Egyptians
from themselves. It is also written by a man, who even in the flush of victory was
prepared to say that the Mahdi would go down as one of the great men in the history of
the Sudan and to criticize Kitchner for failing to care for the Dervish wounded.
It needs to be admitted that Churchill can take some getting used to. The typeset
in this book is not the easiest to deal with and can be hard on middle-aged eyes. Readers
who don't know Churchill also should be prepared to meet a fellow to whom blood made
a difference and who believed the world was populated by lesser and greater races - the
greatest being the English. It was an attitude that was widely shared.
This book is worth having whether you are a gamer, a historian, a fan of
literature, or a student of the Victorian Age. It belongs on your shelf. And at this price
there is no reason why it should not be there.
"The Scramble For Africa: 1876 - 1912," by Thomas Pakenham (New York:
Random House, 1992) 738 pages (hardback) $14.00 (paperback) ISBN: 0380719991
A big book that tells a big story about big men. For those who don't know (which
are probably people who don't visit this website) the entire continent of Africa, with the
exception of Liberia and Abyssinia, passed into the possession of European powers, with
most of the acquisition taking place in a series of increasingly frantic bursts of activity in
the 19th century. It is an epic story for an epic land and Pakenham does it better in one
volume than other authors in two or three.
If there is a central story to the book, other than how the map of Africa was filled
in, it is of Leopold, King of the Belgium and how he came to personally own the heart of
a continent. If you don't know the story you will be amazed. But there are plenty of
other stories, as well.
There are wars. Wars involving Zulus, Mahdists, and tribes from West Africa
whose resistance has been slighted by mainstream histories. There are European
failures, fanatics and colossi (such as Rhodes). There are maps, illustrations and
personality profiles. There is political maneuver, intrigue and competition between the
British, the French and the Germans. There is, in fact, something for everyone.
Although the book is about European conquests, Pakenham does not make the
Europeans out to be champions of good. But neither does he glamorize the conquered.
There is impressive research without a hint of the dryness of academic tomes sitting
unopened in a library where dust motes hang heavy in the air. This is that rare find -
history that could be legitimately recommended as summer reading.
If you come across the hard back edition at a good price buy it. Otherwise buy
the paperback. Why am I so much in favor of this work? First, for a reader with only a
passing interest in the topic it is the entire book that is needed. Second, for a reader with
a depth of knowledge in the area, Pakenham would serve as that first initial checkpoint
before plunging into more arcane tomes. Third, and finally, it's an exceptionally well-
written book, packed with emotion and interest.
The final selection posed a special challenge, as I wanted to recommend a work of
fiction. As it turns out, the one I most wanted to recommend is not in print at present - or
at least this would appear to be the case as I submit this column.
The work I had in mind was "Soldiers Three" and "Barrack Room Ballads" by
Rudyard Kipling. These are the best, in my opinion of his Indian Army stories and are a
delight. Amazon reports that they will be offering two Kipling collections in May. There
will be a set of his early works for $48.00 and evidently a master collection of all his
works for $98.00 (all prices U.S.) I can't say whether or not this is really going to
happen, but Amazon says it will. (And if they or the publisher want a reviewer, I'll only
charge them the cost of the books.)
So, since Kipling is apparently not available, I'm recommending a personal
favorite, "King Solomon's Mines," by H. Rider Haggard. (New York; Puffin
Classics 1999). 190 pages, $3.59, ISBN: 0146366873.
There's savings to be had in buying classics. At this price you could buy several
of these books as stocking stuffers. Haggard was one of the pioneers of adventure
fiction. Since he was a hunter he knew a lot about what he was talking about and the
result is a novel that stands the test of time. This tale chronicles the search of an English
nobleman, Naval Officers and big game hunter for the nobleman's missing relative. The
search takes them deep into unexplored Africa, a country of hitherto unknown Zulus and
King Solomon's mines. There are massive battles, dark witchcraft, mano el mano duels
to the death, and some of literature's most striking characters. Even if you don't replicate
the battles, it's hard not to want to do something along those lines when the book is
finished. One surprising feature of the book is that H. Rider is surprisingly even-handed
for an author of his day. The deposed Zulu king, coming to recover his throne is a
complete and enviable character. Haggard likely did not doubt that God was an
Englishmen, but at least he was willing to say that other nationalities could produce men
of stature as well.
There you have it. If you don't have these books and your loved ones don't get the
hint, why not treat yourselves. You've earned it. And you can't spend all your time
painting or pushing lead.
All the very best, and a special seasons wishes for my friends on
the one list. Drive safe!