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Northwest Passage

1 rating: 3.0
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This classic novel follows the career of Major Rogers, whose incredible exploits during the French and Indian Wars are told through Langdon Towne, an artist and Harvard student who flees trouble to join the army.--This text refers to an out of print … see full wiki

Tags: Books, Cafe Libri
Publisher: Madison Park Press
1 review about Northwest Passage

A Forgotten American Hero

  • Jul 29, 2011
Rating:
+3
This tale, cast as a memoir by a fictional acquaintance of the historical Robert Rogers who gained fame in colonial America for creating and leading "Rogers' Rangers," is lengthy but compellingly told, especially in its first part. As others have noted, the first section, which recounts how young Langdon Towne, an aspiring artist from New England, finds himself on the run from local authorities and thrust into the arms of the Rangers is fast paced, vivid and exciting narration. Towne and a companion soon end up enlisted in the Rangers on the eve of their departure for the Indian town of St. Francis where French-supported Indians who have been terrorizing the New England colonists are based. Under the spying eyes of French and Indian scouts in the latter years of the French and Indian War, Rogers' Rangers depart the British stronghold of Crown Point and, led by the indomitable Rogers, succeed in making the lengthy and difficult passage in secret to St. Francis where, in a surprise attack, they slaughter the Indians dwelling there. The return home to safety turns out to be the real challenge though as Major Rogers must herd and cozzen his failing and soon starving troops back to New England via a different path in order to avoid retaliation by the French and Indians of Canada.

The long trek back nearly kills them all though many finally get through thanks only to the unyielding will and capacity for outthinking his opponents that Major Rogers reveals, thus gaining the hero worship of young Langdon Towne and others in their company. Toward the end of the journey back, nearly starved and dead, it is Rogers who manages the final leg to bring back help for what remain of his men and, in so doing, he earns the undying gratitude of the colonials and the British Army itself. But Rogers is a man who needs action and who dreams big and he has begun to think of something that only the boldest have dreamt of, finding the Northwest Passage through North America to the shores of Japan and China. Young Langdon returns to his hometown of Kittery, a coastal settlement northeast of Massachussetts, to take up his old life which he finds no easy task, under the circumstances. Still, despite the respect he has now earned from his neighbors, he eventually decides to pursue his artistic inclinations and, disappointed in love, finally takes ship for England. The second part of the tale is rich in the London of the period as young Towne works to earn his living as a painter so that he can one day return to America to paint Indians. But Rogers shows up in London, too, and before long they have resumed their former close relationship with Towne hero worshipping the great man. Rogers is working to get support from the English aristocratic class and, especially, from the king himself, for the expedition to discover the Northwest Passage and promises to take Langdon Towne with him when he goes.

Meanwhile, Towne is enlisted in a task laid on him by Rogers' personal secretary, one Natty Potter, to find the lost daughter of the secretary's disparate youth. In a complex series of events, Rogers seems to get what he is after, all the while drinking heavily and carousing with the London upper crust, while Langdon, through Rogers' good offices, achieves some respectability as an artist himself. Returning to the Americas, his relationship with Rogers restored, Langdon Towne affiliates himself with the larger than life adventurer once more and soon finds himself in Michilimakinac, at the juncture of the Great Lakes where Rogers means to establish himself and branch out from there to discover the elusive Northwest Passage. But things don't go as smoothly as the relatively simple operation that destroyed St. Francis had and Rogers soon finds himself embroiled in a political battle with the influential Sir William Johnson, His Majesty's Indian Agent (and friend of the Iroquois Confederation), who aims to retain a monopoly on the Indian trade at all costs. Rogers' plans get in the way of Johnson's objectives and the two are set on a collision course.

There is as rich a detailing of wilderness life in this part of the book as in the first half though we never see the Indians themselves in any great depth. But the narrative threads are less taut as the tale shifts from one of adventure against deadly adversity to the complex interactions of numerous personalities against the backdrop of the Johnson-Rogers feud over Indian control. In the end the forceful and energetic Rogers is undone by the subtler and more cunning Johnson (aided and abetted by the shortsightedness of Rogers' own supporters in London who tie his hands rather than fund his plans, to which they have supposedly signed on) and all of the major's dreams come crashing down upon him. A lately discovered betrayal by the major of his young protege's personal interests turns Langdon Towne against Rogers too, as he soon sets out to rescue his damsel-in-distress, spirited away from him to Montreal.

The rest of the novel brings Towne at last back to London and his lady love -- and, surprisingly, Rogers, too, though the latter is no longer in the condition or state in which he had once been wont to appear. Eliciting Towne's sympathetic assistance in a Debtor's Prison in London, Rogers wins back at least a modicum of his old friend's loyalty, albeit without the same level of respect, and the two part again, Towne to become the artist he had dreamed of being and Rogers to move onto other ventures and unachievable dreams. With the onset of the Revolutionary War, Rogers returns yet again, though now on the wrong side as far as the colonists are concerned for he is still serving the British. But the man, whatever his skills on the battlefield in guerrilla war has become but a shadow of his former self and so the story fades with the fading of Major Robert Rogers himself.

Kenneth Roberts has penned a worthy novel which strikes true to the historical record and populates his pages with vividly drawn characters, not least of whom is the larger than life Robert Rogers. That the historical Rogers ended up on the wrong side in the Revolutionary War goes a long way toward explaining why his name and fame largely faded from America's historical record.

Stuart W. Mirsky
author of The King of Vinland's Saga

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