April Morning – Howard Fast

Somehow we never read this in high school, so I was interested in the Netgalley offering for the new Open Road digital edition. It seems to be a nice edition, apart from a few odd typos (‘”We’d never sleep a peaceful night again – not ever again, no V”‘); the cover art is stark and attractive.

April Morning is the story of about thirty-six hours in the life of fifteen-year-old Adam Cooper, a farm boy in Massachusetts living a placid life with his domineering father, Moses, and his sweet mother, sharp grandmother, and typical-pain little brother. (His grandmother was terrific.) What is not really obvious from the text until a little ways in is that this isn’t just 18th century Massachusetts – it is Lexington, as in Lexington and Concord, and the April morning is April 18-19, 1776.

By the end of the brief novel Adam’s entire life has changed, and his future as well. It’s easy to slip into the old habit of thinking about the men who fought the Revolution as … only that, the plucky militia, confounding the Redcoats with guerilla tactics. It’s easy to forget about the fact that the war came on them with a force and suddenness they did not expect. Many knew it might come; the leadership in particular was a well-informed group. They didn’t know how and exactly when. They didn’t expect to see friends and neighbors and family cut down, or to see the entire course of their lives redirected. Or terminated. The tidy, uncomplicated path Adam has always seen for his life – probably marry within the village, perhaps to Ruth, eventually inherit the farm, care for his grandmother and parents until they die, raise a family of his own, take up a position on the Committee in his father’s wake – is obliterated. By the end of the brief time covered by the book, it is all still possible – but not nearly as obvious, as safe and sure, as it has been all his life. His life, his future – the world has changed.

By the end of the story I was rather fond of Adam, who is engaging despite his teenaged-boy-ness. I’ve come across surprisingly little fiction centered on the Revolution (there’s my beloved Sherwood Ring, and I need to read Johnny Tremaine again one day), and I’m glad of a story that illuminates a corner of a period of history I know less about than I’d like to. I had, for example, no idea that that was how the whole thing started. This account certainly differs from the general impression of the Minutemen, every one loaded for bear (literally) and more than willing to defend their homes with no discussion. The Committee was so very much a committee, a panel of men of all opinions who spoke much and accomplished, apparently, little; this is not the popular image of the clear-minded forefather…

The brutality of the battle – battles – was startling, as was the frankness about the various reactions. There are no real heroes here, not as the history books would like us to see them; in fact, Adam notes himself that some of the greatest heroism shown that morning was by the British soldiers who walked into Colonial gunfire – and kept walking.

My eyebrows went up at the casual discussion of investment into slave ships, often profitable enough to be worth bucking public opinion despite an obscene percentage of ships – or was it just cargo? – lost. It’s another thing I’ve never thought much about, the 18th century attitude toward slavery.

I was also surprised by the opinions expressed of Sam Adams and John Hancock?. Here are these (to overuse the word) heroes of the Revolution, and the denizens of Lexington are not happy about a visit from these worthies. I knew shamefully little about Sam Adams, who, it appears, was seen as an atheist (Wikipedia lists him as Congregational) and a radical (true enough). They seem to both be considered stormcrows.

“They were here tonight.”
“Who?”
“Sam Adams and John Hancock.”
“Oh, no,” Father said. “Now what in heaven’s name were they doing here?”

I like this sort of detail – I love to see a little deeper or from a slightly different angle than usual.

The book is from Adam’s first-person point of view, and the language is colloquial without, happily, being unreadably young or “farm-boy” – the local color is not blinding. For a short work, there is a lot of strong characterization here – I finished it feeling I knew several of the characters quite well, and had known them a long time, something far too many much longer books fail to achieve. The quote I added above about Adams and Hancock is a good example of the skill with which this was managed: succinct and expressive without needing the narrator stepping in to fill in the blanks. It grew on me, and continued the effect after I finished it. I’ve found that I knock off a star from some books in the course of working up a review. Here, if anything, I might add one.

ETA, with thanks to Laura De Silva of Open Road: there is an author information page on the publisher’s website, and here is a brief, wonderful biographical video about Howard Fast:

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