I have been rereading Kenneth Roberts’ novel Rabble in Arms, published in 1933. I have probably read it a dozen times or more. I first read it at about thirteen; I can see myself soaking in the extra-long upstairs bathtub and turning damp pages, so engrossed that the water grew cool. That first paperback copy had my big sister’s notes in it: “Dull! Too many descriptions!” but I loved the military history and the impeccable sense of period. I was also smitten with Roberts’ brilliant and adoring portrait of Benedict Arnold. Surely I was the only schoolgirl to ever write on her secondary school application, in answer to the question, “Who is the person you most admire?” the answer, “Benedict Arnold.” (“Can we discuss this?” inquired the admissions director.)
Rereading Kenneth Roberts today I recognize that his Arnold is a great deal Roberts, but having read most of Roberts’ primary sources for the Revolutionary novels I don’t disagree with his basic premise that Arnold was our most gifted field commander during that war. Roberts was a peerless historical scholar. In all his books I have found only one miniscule error of fact. (In Oliver Wiswell he has Judge Thomas Jones stroll onstage in a bit part during the six months when Jones was actually imprisoned in Fairfield, Connecticut.)
I was googling Roberts yesterday and one of the sidebars promised, FIND KENNETH ROBERTS! I immediately thought, “Wouldn’t that be fun!” Roberts was irascible and opinionated but then, so am I. I’d love to talk to him for hours.
One of the things I’d tell him is that reading Rabble in Arms I’ve been overwhelmed by what Margaret Mitchell called “the humbles.” The conviction that even with the best research in hand I could never, ever write anything close to this. Roberts was a Renaissance man. Not only was he a wonderful writer — and very funny — but all his practical details ring true. His characters hunt, fish, sail, farm, cook. Roberts knew a jib topsail from a mizzenmast, how to lace a birch-bark canoe with spruce roots, with what kind of bullets you shoot ducks, how to make eel stew, the contents of hogsheads in a 1770s pantry. I can’t even tell a rifle from a shotgun.
This is the sort of detail that makes or breaks historical novels for me. When these details are wrong, I put a book down. The thought that I can’t do it myself is discouraging. I long to write the story I plotted thirty years ago, with my heroine moving between New York City (occupied by the British) and Connecticut (where I grew up).
Ah well. For now I have to keep propelling Jessica and Andrew to a successful conclusion of their Inevitable Romance.