Book Review - To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen
I *still* have a hard time associating Newt Gingrich with books instead of with government, but I'm getting over it after having read many of his historical novels. The latest one he's produced is titled To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom, written along with William R. Forstchen. The American Revolution is not my normal reading fare, but sometimes you go with a book just because of the author's past work. That's what happened here, and I'm glad I did. Gingrich and Forstchen put real flesh, blood, pain, and emotions behind a pivotal battle for our independence, in a way that puts the history books to shame.
To Try Men's Souls takes place in the month before Christmas of 1776, the time of the infamous river crossing portrayed in paint. The soldiers of the Revolution (if you could call them that) were frozen, hungry, diseased, and near death. The English, with assistance from the Hessians, had the war nearly won. They could have ended America's fledgling democracy had they continued to push forward for only a couple more days. But they chose to avoid the horrible weather and celebrate Christmas. General Washington gambled all he had left and marched the troops (or what remained of them) through ice and snow, many barefoot, to have the one last battle at Trenton. Much to his amazement, they were able to surprise the English troops and took the city with nearly no casualties on their part. That's not to say that the battle was won without cost... Many died in the following days from the ravages of disease that overtook them. But the tide had been turned, and history records what happened from there.
The story in the novel follows General George Washington, Thomas Paine, and a private in the army, Jonathan Van Dorn. Through their eyes, you see the doubt, the hope, the despair and suffering. Washington shows compassion for his men, knowing he has little choice but to risk their lives to gain freedom from England. Paine is looked to as the inspiration for a nation with his words, but he's at a loss to explain how much freedom costs, and how it's killing those around him. Van Dorn is the young lad who believes in what they are doing, what they stand for, regardless of the personal hell he's going through to fight for those ideals. These are the stories that get glossed over in the history books. These are the stories that help you understand and appreciate what we have been given in this country. Granted, the actual words and thoughts are "historical fiction", but the color and flavor is not.
The only aspect of the book that I though was not great was the pacing at certain points. Even though the book covers a month of time, much of the action is spent marching in snow and ice... and crossing rivers... and trying to sleep... before more marching in snow and ice... I still found the overall story riveting, but at times I wanted something more to happen than simply another description of how cold it was and how much the soldiers were suffering. Even so, To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom is one of those books that gives you a deeper appreciation for a certain historical event, and makes you see everything at a whole new level of understanding.