With The Great War: American Front, Harry Turtledove continues to fascinate readers with his stories of "alternate history." From his Worldwar tetralogy (aliens invade the earth during World War II) to The Guns of the South (time travelers equip Robert E. Lee with AK-47s), the "what ifs" of war are played out on the printed page. In his newest series, Turtledove returns to a world where the South won the great conflict, but the result, while enthralling, is not very cheery.
What is "alternate history?" Simply put, it is taking a pivotal point in history and changing the outcome to see what develops. What if Joseph Kennedy, Jr., had not been shot down in WWII? For that matter, what if Glenn Miller had not been shot down? How would that have affected Jack Kennedy? Would he have become president? Or would he have joined Miller's band? You get the idea. In the case of The Great War: American Front, the world as we know it hinges on a lost set of battle plans wrapped around some cigars during the Civil War. In Turtledove's world, the plans weren't lost, and the South won the War Between the States.
In How Few Remain, the first book of this series, a second, bitter war is fought in the 1880s, ending in a standoff, but the real story is how the lives and philosophies of the two countries are forever altered. In The Great War, the uneasy truce comes to a violent end with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914; the first World War begins, but this time it is fought on American soil.
Picture this from Maryland to Utah, Quebec to Oklahoma, Kentucky to Hawaii, Americans are fighting Americans, on the ground, in the air, under the sea, in trenches, in tanks, with aerial bombardments, poison gas, prison camps and firing squads. Needless to say, while deeply engrossing, The Great War is not a pleasant book. Despite a plethora of interesting characters, it's really hard to root for either side. These good men and women are doing awful things and reducing their country to cinders. That is also the strength and power of this book. Whereas in How Few Remain the main characters are Abe Lincoln, Mark Twain, George Armstrong Custer, and Teddy Roosevelt, famous Americans of history play only a peripheral role in this book.
Ultimately, the true backbone of The Great War are those that look with horror at the war. They are the poor and downtrodden, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free African-Americans, manumitted in both nations, second-class citizens in both and the poor white working class in both the north and south. They are communists.
That's right, communists. They read works by Marx and Lenin and Lincoln(!). And, as astonishing as it might seem, the "reds" offer the only hope the two countries have the terrible hope of the fire that burns all so that life can begin anew. Whether it will remains to be seen, as Turtledove leaves us hanging at the end of The Great War. I'm sure his next book will be worth the wait.
Reviewed by Jim Webb.