Jonathan Carriel: Review of Thomas Fleming's "Liberty Tavern" (E-Book Edition; New Word City, 2012)
Revolutions do not usually come cheap—and certainly the American Revolution did not. The eight-year war that secured it is conservatively estimated to have claimed some 25,000 American lives—the percentage-wise equivalent, today, of 3.1 million citizens. (There was huge carnage for the British, too, of course, plus substantial casualty counts for allied Europeans and Native Americans.) Yet even as we take in these staggering numbers, the true human cost remains a bloodless shadow. As Stalin gruesomely but aptly put it, one death is a tragedy, a million … is a statistic.
This is a nexus where historical fiction can profoundly enhance our grasp of historical reality—and one of the greatest novels of the Revolution has happily just been reissued, with a new introduction by its prolific author, as an electronic book. Thomas Fleming’s Liberty Tavern sold a million copies when it was originally published in the bicentennial year, 1976. Its themes are, if anything, even more urgent and relevant today.
Fleming’s fictional middle-class New Jersey family seems at first very familiar: the father’s a widower and the hard-working proprietor of a prospering public accommodation that serves as a social focus for miles around; his two much loved but quarrelsome stepchildren are in their late adolescence and chafing to be free of all adult supervision. This story’s no set-up for a television drama, however: it begins uneasily on January 1, 1776—amid universal trepidation about the future.
Liberty Tavern pulls the reader deeply into the reality of a community that will spend years in upheaval, uncertain of the outcome to the last, often at war with itself as much as with a foreign oppressor. The eponymous hostelry’s respected owner, Jonathan Gifford, is a former British soldier, somewhat hobbled by a knee injury, who for the last decade has immersed himself in building his business, his family, and his locality. Experienced in battle, he views with deep apprehension the cocky assertions of many of his neighbors that Britain can be defeated without difficulty by righteous patriots. He withholds his counsel when others maintain with equal glibness that the king’s forces can never be defeated and that surrendering is the only sane course. Virtually everyone around concurs that British policy is unjust and ought to be changed; but the disagreements over whether that would be possible and how the colonists might promote it turn increasingly acrimonious.
The public situation is further complicated for Gifford when his two stepchildren take opposite sides—passionately, neither evincing any toleration for Gifford’s cautious prudence. Headstrong, seventeen-year-old Kate has taken up with the poetry-spouting, loyalist son of Gifford’s best friend, and deems politics an outrageous imposition on her romantic life. The equally headstrong, nineteen-year-old lad Kemble, home to recuperate from pneumonia after two years at Princeton, is frantic to participate in the glory that he is positive will accrue to the American cause. All three struggle too with remorse and guilt and defensiveness over the memory of the recently deceased wife and mother—the sort of completely personal, apolitical concern that insistently obtrudes itself into everyone’s real life despite all hell breaking loose.
Around this cauldron of personal and local difficulty breaks the American Revolutionary War. Only after Congress has declared independence does Gifford make his own declaration—by renaming the tavern. The boy finds it too little, too late; the girl disdains to perceive the enormous risk involved given the British army’s proximity and the tavern’s location on a major military highway. The best friend becomes estranged. As the years pass, Gifford and his children suffer greatly—physically, emotionally, economically—as control of their county passes abruptly not only between the Redcoats and the Congress, but among them, the loyalists, the state’s militia, rogue vigilantes, and outright criminals.
While dozens of homes, barns, fields, and businesses are plundered and burnt by all sides, the tavern’s needfulness to all factions contributes to its clearly precarious survival. The family’s and the community’s endurance is just as tenuous; determination and heroism are stretched taut to see them through.
As always, war brings out some of the best and lots of the worst in human beings—and it brings them out on both sides of the conflict. Many of the novel’s most memorable characters and scenes involve honorable British enemies … and truly despicable “patriots.”
When the ships finally sail out of New York harbor, Kate and Kendall—eight years older, after all, and much wiser than they were on page one—are fully reconciled to their stepfather. But even as relief and hope offer breath to the gasping population …
We’ll say no more. Treat yourself to the enthralling Liberty Tavern, and you won’t be studying the American Revolution, you’ll be living the American Revolution.
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