Book Review: Letters for Catherine
G. G. Stokes’s Letters For Catherine tells the story of one William Hunter, a young boy coming of age right alongside his burgeoning country. Historically precise and emotionally accurate, the novel manages to bring the past alive, entertaining and educating at once. The romance, boyhood angst, and the bond between friends rings just as true as the smells, sights, and textures of Revolutionary America.
Lost in most textbooks, unfortunately, are the internal conflicts present in the colonies of the late eighteenth century. Too often the war is portrayed as something waged across the Atlantic, when the truth is far more sinister (and interesting). Many, if not most of the new Americans considered themselves British citizens foremost. And the difference between a revolutionary war and a civil war is more a question of who becomes the victor, rather than mere semantics.
Stokes captures this turmoil ably, as a war fought on one’s own land must also be fought in secret. An individual’s alliances are difficult to know, dangerous to safely discern, and often prove temporary.
Told through the lens of a young boy who isn’t completely interested in world affairs at first, his growth into a young man in love parallels his maturation as a soldier at war. And even though the Revolutionary War was notorious for its lack of set-piece battles—being mostly a struggle to keep the colonies’ army intact—there is enough action and intrigue interspersed throughout to keep the narrative moving.
Told over a three year period, Stokes manages to capture the many phases of conflict. Those taking place within William as well as those conducted between one great nation, and another that aspires to be. The titular letters assist in this endeavor by laying out the ruminations between William and a few other characters (most notably Catherine, the prototypical lady-in-waiting).
Letters For Catherine is an easy recommend. Well-written and wonderfully researched, the book is chock-full of local color. As a former resident of Charleston, I especially appreciated the accurate geography, all the place-names I know well such as King Street, Meeting Street, Fort Moultrie, the Cooper River, James Island. Anyone familiar with the area will revel in all the place-names.
Another bonus was being treated to a Southern war novel in which I could root for the protagonist. Civil War novels outweigh the Revolutionary by a billion to one, and are often written by Southerners attempting to romanticize the deplorable. Perhaps it is the lack of inglorious bloodshed that makes the Revolutionary era less attractive to authors. Whatever the cause, G. G. Stokes does an admirable job of highlighting the tragedy of this imbalance.