J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reviewing Road to Revolution!

Stan Mack and Susan Champlin’s Road to Revolution! is a new graphic novel for readers aged ten to fourteen set in and around Boston in 1775-76. By some reckonings, the American Revolution was well underway by that time, but this historical fiction in comics form definitely shows the outbreak of the war.

The book has two teenaged protagonists, an orphaned pickpocket named Nick and a tavern-keeper’s daughter named Penny. They meet cute, fuss and feud a bit, and become friends, if not quite a couple. As characters for young readers to follow, they’re lively and sympathetic (particularly by today’s standards—more on that to come).

Fiction writers face a major challenge in giving their readers a look at every major development early in the war because those events took place both inside and outside Boston, often with distance and barriers in between. How can the same characters witness them all?

In Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes gave Rab family roots in Lexington so he could be on that town’s common when the redcoats arrived on 19 Apr 1775. In Octavian Nothing, M. T. Anderson’s title character spends the first volume outside Boston, then crosses into the besieged town for the start of volume 2.

In Road to Revolution!, both protagonists get involved in spying for the Patriots, so they have reasons to cross the siege lines and show up where the action is thickest. We readers have to suspend our disbelief a lot, but that approach does provide fairly constant action.

Thus, in chapter 4 Nick and Penny bring Dr. Joseph Warren word that the king’s troops are about to march to Concord, and Nick hangs the lanterns in the Christ Church steeple to send the same news to Charlestown. In chapter 5, Nick helps row Paul Revere across the Charles River, and Penny supplies the petticoat to muffle the oars.

But that’s not all! Nick rides “along the back roads to Lexington,” arriving five hours after Revere, just in time to see the shots on the common. After a “Six hours later” caption, Nick gets to see the regulars retreat back through Lexington, assists provincial militiamen, and even treats Dr. Warren’s head wound. (In reality, the doctor had part of his hair shot off, but wasn’t hurt.)

And the excitement doesn’t stop! Penny discovers Dr. Benjamin Church’s treachery months before the Patriots actually tumbled to it. Nick fights in the Battle of Bunker Hill, seeing Dr. Warren fall and assisting his brother in surgeries. Then, as usual in modern histories, the rest of the siege of Boston is dispatched in one chapter. By dramatic standards, the action peaked early, and those nine months were anticlimactic.

One big strength of Road to Revolution! is its humor, in both verbal and visual form. Mack and Champlin exploit the comics form well, and use animals for extra comic relief. As an example, here from the last chapter is a scene that’s de rigueur in this sort of Revolutionary fiction or myth—a personal encounter with Gen. George Washington. I have a hard time imagining the generalissimo being a “Huh?” type of guy, but I still get a chuckle out of the young characters’ interaction. (Remember, Nick starts as a pickpocket.)

1 comment:

Patricia Erikson said...

Having a youth protagonist goes a long way toward educating children about history, making it more accessible for them. Now if we can broaden the story of the Revolution a bit, which is what we're trying to do up here in Maine with our Fifth Maine educational program. A thirteen year old protagonist who resides on Peaks Island in (then) Falmouth Harbor witnesses the bombardment and destruction of the city by the Canceaux - an important October moment, by the way.