Friday, November 15, 2013

Elaine Marie Cooper's "Fields of the Fatherless"

Fields of the FatherlessIt is 1775; tensions are mounting through the American colonies, and the American militia is secretly preparing for battle.  In the Russell household in Menotomy Village, Massachusetts, 18-year-old Betsy knows that war is coming, and she wants to be prepared - but who can really be prepared for a battle that literally takes place on one's doorstep?  And how does one deal with the aftermath - when fathers and grandfathers and brothers throughout the village are killed in the battle?  Elaine Marie Cooper's novel Fields of the Fatherless looks closely at the opening day of the American Revolution, as seen through the eyes of young Betsy Russell. 

My main complaint is that it is so short - only 128 pages.  I would have loved it to be triple that length with a lot more development of Betsy's life prior to the battle and the events afterward, but as such it makes an excellent young adult novel.  At eighteen, with plenty of insecurities during this troubled time, Betsy is not so mature that she will not appeal to young readers.  I think she is realistically portrayed - neither a little girl nor completely grown up; with her young, scared nephew, she acts calm and in charge; when she is frightened, she is willing to turn to her parents and other adults with her fears.  As a warning for young readers, there are some violent descriptions in the story (though compared to most movies, they really are not too bad).  In general it would be a great educational novel on the Revolutionary war. 

The battle at Menotomy Village saw the most bloodshed on the first day of the Revolutionary War, with more fatalities than Lexington and Concord combined.  Many of the characters who appear during the battle and afterward were real people, and many of the incidents that sound like fiction - like Betsy's sister-in-law going into labor in the middle of the battle and British soldiers surrendering to a little old lady while she was pulling dandelions -  were in fact also real.  

I like that Cooper's descriptions of the battle are based on truth, and that she does not paint the Americans as saints during it.  Soldiers and militia men were not just shot cleanly and killed, but rather many were shot, then stabbed by bayonets and hacked with hatchets until nearly unrecognizable - and the brutality was not limited to the British.  Both the British and Americans fought in such a way, with more savagery than could ever be necessary.  The amazing thing is that even with such brutal fighting, people still survived - an 80-year-old man was shot in the head and bayoneted thirteen times, and yet he lived to reach 98. 

In the story, not only is Betsy dealing with significant fears, but also bitterness and anger - she must learn to love her enemy, which is no easy feat for anyone, let alone a grieving girl.  Cooper does a good job dealing with the subject, bringing a touch of humanity to America's enemies.  It is a good story - 4 out of 5 stars.

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