Review: Consequences of the Battle at Sandy Creek, by Neil Thomas

July 15, 2012

The War of 1812-14 is much in the public mind this year.  A unique addition to the canon is Consequences of the Battle at Sandy Creek.  Neil Thomas tells the story of a young Lieutenant given a commission in the British army by a prominent Kingston merchant, sent on a spying mission by him, then captured and returned to Kingston in an American gun boat under a flag of truce, along with a packet of evidence for his court martial.

But the main narrative frame details the slow recovery of a Canadian journalist from the massacre of his interview subjects on a Peruvian farm at the hands of the guerrilla group Shining Path in 1989. Torn by survivor’s guilt and the shock of a savage beating at the hands of the killers, Alastair MacNeil returns to his grandmother’s home in Kingston, Ontario, where he comes upon a series of documents pertaining to the trial for treason of his ancestor, Lieutenant Cameron MacNeil.

The War of 1812 frame recounts the expedition of Cameron and his men to northern New York State at the request of Kingston merchant Richard Cartwright to collect commercial intelligence. Trade must go on regardless of the presence of armies and gunboats on Lake Ontario, and as Cartwright tells MacNeil, for a trader information is everything.

As Alastair makes his way through his great, great, great, great grandfather’s documents he discovers levels of deceit incomprehensible to his embattled ancestor who carried his belief in the King and Mr. Cartwright all of the way to the gallows.

Through flashbacks to his trauma in Peru, Alastair increasingly leads the reader to conclude that the forces arrayed against Cameron were not unlike those faced by the Peruvian peasants he had encountered: corrupt leaders and insurgents played their games, businessmen made their money,  and peasants died grizzly deaths at the hands of the armed men of all three factions.

Author Neil Thomas obviously knows rural Peru. He offers a vivid account of a meal in a peasant’s stone dwelling, explaining how Peruvians freeze and dry potatoes for use as a staple food throughout the year. Another account of a half-day tilling a stony field with a hand tool carries the authority of a writer who has worked the land by hand on several continents. Thomas’s anger toward the Shining Path is evident as well in the dedication where he blames the terrorist group for the death of his environmental journalist friend Barbara d’Achille on May 31, 1989.

So what does the torment of Peruvian peasants in a nameless civil war in the 1980’s have to do with the War of 1812? Thomas infers that both wars were fought largely through the use of terror. It’s a historical fact that Fort Detroit fell to General Brock because its commander was terrified of Tecumseh’s warriors. Tecumseh sided with General Brock and the British because U.S. General Harrison massacred the residents of his home village while the great Indian leader was elsewhere with his men.  Harrison later took this proclivity to genocide to Washington as the ninth U.S. President.

Thomas takes the terrors of war and intrigue to another level in the murders of Canadian and American farmers, killed and maimed by partisans in a manner to suggest Indian savagery.

But behind the intrigues and injustices of both story frames lay economic motives and a numbing lack of concern for the rural dwellers and aboriginals who worked, struggled, died, and were easily replaced by their political and economic leaders.

Thomas’s novel is more than a simple work of historical fiction. It is a durable, detailed, and at times comfortable construction, rather like a fine wing chair that invites to you to sit in it.

Available at Amazon.com Books, $14.95 ISBN 978-0-9865914-1-9

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