It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a history buff and I’m a frequent reader of historic fiction. In the last year I’ve been intrigued by and have explored alternative history novels. While I was surprised by the quality and detail in Laura Andersen’s Boleyn King Trilogy and Tudor Legacy Series (I’m looking forward to previewing The Virgin’s Spy sometime in the next two months), Ted Richardson’s Imposters of Patriotism was a bit of a bumpy ride for me.
Matt Hawkins has found a calm rhythm to life since trading a life in New York City as a Wall Street investor for one as an antiques dealer in Savannah, Georgia. After buying a box of old books from the local library, Matt discovers that concealed in a century-old atlas is a much older journal. Skimming through the journal, Matt learns two important things: it was the journal of Caty Greene, the wife of Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene, and that in the journal she makes many references to a letter written at Valley Forge by George Washington to British General Howe regarding terms for surrender. At the same time, one of two candidates for President has based much of his campaign strategy around his family’s descent from George Washington – a strategy that could suffer if word of such a surrender letter came to light. As Matt Hawkins begins to search for the letter, he encounters a colorful cast of characters both eager to help him and desperate to stop him.
It was the premise of the novel that made me want to read it. As Richardson explains in an afterward, there is no such surrender letter written by Washington but the impact such a discovery would have on national and international perception – to the point of influencing an election – is an interesting one to explore. While the shady forces out to suppress such a story are exciting in theory, as the novel progressed there were some glaring oversights in logic that made suspending my disbelief increasingly difficult.
The narrative contains a number of glimpses into the past as the fictitious letter’s origins and journey through time are explored while much of the action takes place in the “Present Day.” It’s never quite specified what year this would be but given references to events that took place in 2008 and the fact that it’s supposed to be a presidential election year, I’d have to place “Present Day” as 2012. Given the level of technology available to the characters, I find it really hard to believe that the characters weren’t using their cell phones or some other kinds of cameras to document their findings along the way. Most of the plot centers on the physical journal and letter in an effort to contain the story and eliminate all traces of evidence documenting the letter’s existence and yet no one ever thinks to take a few minutes to get a picture? While there are other considerable leaps (a ninety-year-old woman whose father was born a slave during the Civil War is plausible but a stretch since ninety years would put her birth in the 1920s and her father’s birth about sixty years before that in the 1860s), the fact that historic documents are being digitized for cataloguing and reference by the same people who don’t think to photograph or video record their national-icon altering discoveries is the most difficult for me to swallow.
The characters themselves never seem to escape the two-dimensional roles in which they’re originally cast. They’re given backstories and quirks but they still felt flat – in part because so much about them is told and reinforced by explanation rather than through demonstration. The facts related to the letter and the larger plot are repeated a few too many times, becoming tedious. The relationship between Matt and Sarah feels almost forced because the reader doesn’t get a see enough of their interactions – for instance, rather than getting to see their first date, the reader comes in after it’s over and when it crosses with the surrender letter plot. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly far-fetched and convoluted. There’s one incident with Sarah that is completely ridiculous meant to build drama that I can’t help but shake my head at.
It’s always a disappointment when a promising concept devolves in such a way. The story seemed to become more an attempt to imitate the style of Dan Brown than developing in an organic fashion, forcing the story to fit the plot rather then the plot evolving from the story.