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The Great War: American Front by Harry Turtledove

Published by Del Ray Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Great War: American Front is the first volume in the series of an alternate World War I to which How Few Remain, telling of a Second Mexican War, is the prelude. In our own timeline, the United States was very lucky in the World Wars, sheltered by wide oceans from the brutal realities of modern military conflict. Only some of our outlying territories (Hawaii, Alaska, the Phillipines) actually experienced attack or occupation. Although the mainland may have gone through preparedness drills and endured the privations of rationing and of loved ones gone overseas or killed, the actual conflict was Over There.

In a world where the South successfully secceded, the North American continent faces a far uglier reality, divided as it is between two hostile powers who have spent the past several decades nursing old grudges. Whereas the US of our world sought to remain aloof from world events in accordance with the admonition in George Washington's farewell speech to avoid entangling alliances, in this altered world the United States and the Confederate States are now linked to the European powers by various treaties that only exacerbate their natural enmity. When a terrorist outrage against Austria-Hungary's heir-apparent sparks war in Europe, both countries hurry to war against one another. To complicate matters, Teddy Roosevelt, the President of the United States, also hungers for revenge against Canada for the humiliations of the Second Mexican War. Thus he sends troops into Canada as well as the Confederacy. Soon they are bogged down in the horrors of trench warfare on two long fronts.

To complicate matters, Socialism has taken root in America in a way it never did in our own timeline. A large proportion of the working poor of the industrialized US have embraced this philosophy, and with a strong Socialist party just north of the Mason-Dixon line, someone has been smuggling Socialist pamphlets into the hands of the nominally-emancipated (but heavily restricted) Negro population of the South. Furthermore, the Mormons are far more hostile to the government in this timeline, and will gladly sieze any opportunity to follow the example of the Southern states and leave the Union to practice the tenents of their religion in peace (they have not forgotten General Pope's burning of the homes of polygamists during the Second Mexican War).

Turtledove brings it all home to us through his vast cast of characters scattered all across the North American continent. Thus we see these events through their eyes and learn the significance as they happen. For instance, we see the realities of a South in which emancipation has come in name only through the eyes of Scipio, the butler of the Colleton family's plantation, Marshlands, who was taught to read and to speak upper-crust English instead of the dialect of the freedmen by Anne Colleton, the dynamic and forward-looking sister of the owner of record. Yet all the education and polish he has received only serves to remind him of how cruelly circumscribed his opportunity is in the two-tiered society in which he lives. He does not even have the right to a surname -- by law, Negroes in the Confederate States of America are permitted only a single name, and in order to make the most of what little they have, they have come to prefer obscure Classical and Biblical names which distinguish them from the names favored by white southerners.

Similarly, we see the rising importance of the Socialist Party through the eyes of Flora Hamburger, the daughter of Jewish immigrants. When a Socialist parade through New York's Lower East Side is brutally broken up by members of the Soldier's Circle, a veterans' organization that pushes an extreme version of remembrance of past wrongs, she decides that she must step forward and be heard. So she begins to volunteer in the local Socialist office, answering phones and preparing pamphlets to be distributed. Yet she is not just a political activist, but has a full and active personal life with her immigrant Jewish family in their tiny apartment.

Similarly, we see various aspects of the war on land, at sea, and in the air through the eyes of various men who have wives, girlfriends and families they care about at home. They struggle between their families' fears for their safety and their own sense of patriotism calling them to stand up for their country. We see the effects of the US invasion of Canada (which was seen as having stabbed the US in the back during the Second Mexican War, weakening the US just enough that the Confederacy was able to win) through the eyes of two different men, both farmers. French-speaking Louis Galtier who is angered at losing a piece of his patrimony when part of his land is seized to build a hospital but who comes to see the invaders as humans when he himself is treated for a farm injury. By contrast, Arthur McGregor grows steadily more embittered at every inconvenience he experiences as a result of the occupation, and swears never to forgive or forget.

There are a few historical figures still alive in this novel, although George Armstrong Custer is the only one who has a major part. The presidents of the two warring nations, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, are mostly glimpsed through mentions in the news.

Unfortunately, while the story builds quite admirably, it ends on a truly stunning -- and frustrating -- cliffhanger. Although it is billed as a trilogy, it is not in fact a sequence of three connected novels. Instead, it is a single novel divided into three parts due to the limits of binding.

Review posted March 19, 2009

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