War enjoys a prominent place in our history. An outside observer might define the development of our species as a long series of escalating conflicts with ever-increasing death tolls. It’s hardly surprising to see this trend mirrored in historical fiction, where entire bookcases have been filled with stories set against the battlefields of the early modern and pre-industrial worlds. Manitoba author C.W. Lovatt returns us to this fertile ground with his second novel, Josiah Stubb: The Siege of Louisbourg.
Using as its setting one of the defining battles of the Seven Years War, the book follows the trials of Private Josiah Stubb, a young British grenadier, and his reflections on the sad and sordid youth that led him to military life. Under Josiah’s narration, the story splits its time between the rocky fields of Louisbourg and the cobbled streets of St John’s, where he came of age under some of the worst conditions imaginable.
The son of an English prostitute, Josiah was raised and educated in the gutter, and groomed to follow in his mother’s footsteps. Robbed of innocence at the age of thirteen, his adolescence was dominated by rape, incest and forced prostitution. His desperation to escape the life that was forced on him forms the central theme of the book, as he recounts his struggle to find a place among polite society, the outcome of which was disastrous enough to drive him out of St. John’s and into the King’s service.
We don’t see the first days of Josiah’s military service; he’s a nineteen year old veteran when he arrives at Louisbourg, and seems to have taken readily to the soldier’s life. His appreciation of the camraderie and loyalty that hold an army together is frequently expressed, and he finds comfort in the discipline and challenge of a life spent in war. It is at Louisbourg that his newfound sense of peace is shattered, as he learns a valuable and tragic lesson about the past: No matter how far you run, it’s always just behind you.
The plot of Josiah Stubb follows a well-worn formula; the low-born protagonist soldiering his way to glory and honour beyond his station. The same words could just as easily describe Horatio Hornblower or Richard Sharpe, or any number of underdog heroes. But I would hesitate to call Josiah a mere stock character, nor is the story an exercise in repetition. An unoriginal concept can always be saved by skilled execution, and in bringing his world and its players to life, Lovatt has clearly demonstrated his competence.
Josiah himself is an engaging narrator, given personality and substance by the author’s deft prose. Whether he is reflecting on the doomed romance of his youth, or dwelling bitterly on the indignity he suffers at an officer’s hands, Josiah’s voice is consistent and his emotions honest. Lovatt drags him from the heights of passionate love to the venomous depths of hate, blending darkest shame with the glimmer of newfound pride. Josiah reacts believably to the events of his life, his thoughts painting a picture of the many grievous wounds his body and mind have suffered.
Despite his uniquely traumatic existence, Josiah comes across as a sympathetic young man driven equally by duty and ambition. The depth of his character is supported by a diverse cast of peers and rivals. From the strong-willed Elizabeth, unattainable love of his life, to Fat Sally, the mother who nurtured and exploited him. From the troubled Captain Beaumont, whose shame and honour are always at odds, to Josiah’s stalwart and hot-tempered companion Daniel Hawthorne. I could spend the rest of this review detailing the characters in this book, and the author depicts them all as clearly as if he knew them personally.
Of course, even the most well written character can be ruined by poor dialogue. This is an especially great risk when your whole book is written in an anachronistic style meant to evoke an era long past. In that regard, Josiah Stubb is a pleasant surprise. Conversation between characters sounds like actual conversation, rather than two people woodenly reading a script. Every character has a distinct voice, complete with accents and common word choices, so there’s little chance of ever losing track of who is saying what.
There is a small downside to that diversity of dialogue, as Lovatt does go overboard on a few of the accents. The example I found hardest to ignore was Sally, who spoke almost entirely in vowels, and seemed to have the most repetitive vocabulary. I expect this was an attempt to convey her lower class upbringing and lack of education, as the same issue is mainly repeated among characters with similar circumstances and backgrounds. It works in theory, but is only successful in practice if you remember that dialogue needs to be legible. The issue is far from ubiquitous, but Lovatt does miss the mark a few times.
Lovatt’s greatest strength is a fine-tuned attention to detail, supported by clarity of prose that allows him to paint a picture in the reader’s head. It’s a balance sought by every author, and Lovatt achieves it easily, most of the time. We’re first introduced to Josiah and his comrades in the throes of seasickness, with heavy emphasis on “the sounds of half-digested salt pork being regurgitated,” and the splattering of soldiers’ gaiters. Josiah’s lament when his turn comes, “…leaning forward like everyone else, heaving the contents of my stomach onto my boots, miserably wishing that I was dead…” completes the image, which neatly summarises a cast of characters in three paragraphs using nothing but vomit.
On the other hand, Lovatt is somewhat prone to needlessly detailed history lessons on the subject of Louisbourg and the Seven Years War. The lectures are brief, and often interesting, but they can disrupt the flow of the story. The author never loses himself for more than a few paragraphs, however, and always returns to the bleak history of young Josiah.
I will admit, despite the general quality of Lovatt’s writing, there were parts of this book that I simply couldn’t enjoy. I don’t see this as a fault on the author’s part, but as a natural result of the subject matter. The sexual exploitation of a child is an uncomfortable topic, regardless of context. Lovatt is careful not to glorify, and though they are as detailed as every other aspect of the story, the acts described are never gratuitous. Josiah’s warped upbringing is meant to be seen as a tragedy. The discomfort of seeing it up close encourages the reader’s sympathy, and helps us understand his desperate desire to leave that life behind. Despite my unease in reading those chapters, the imagery was inescapably effective.
This remarkable book succeeds, despite a predictable premise, because it offers a well-rounded story. The vibrant setting, ambitious plot and compelling characters paint a thorough picture of Josiah’s trials and triumphs. The author may lose himself occasionally in the history of his work, but he never forgets the tale he set out to tell. His dynamic prose keeps the reader engaged, rewarding us with a profoundly human story set amidst the inhumanity of war. C.W. Lovatt possesses incredible talent, and it is my unreserved opinion that Josiah Stubb: The Siege of Louisbourg deserves a prominent place on any history buff’s bookshelf.
Wild Wolf | 358 pages | $22.00 | paper | ISBN # 978-1907954375