Book Review: The Hornet’s Nest
I’m digging into my college papers and pulling out some of the more interesting papers I wrote. Some papers will be abridged others will be the full papers.
For my American History class, we had to review books about a particular time period. I drew The Hornet‘s Nest by former president Jimmy Carter. The book itself is a semi-biographical tale of Carter’s family. Like many “based on true events” stories, this one is highly fictionalized if not glorifying tale of the period leading up to the Revolutionary War.
Stung by the Hornet’s Nest
Jimmy Carter’s The Hornet’s Nest is about the years preceding and during the Revolutionary War period of those living in the South. The book itself covers over twenty years spanning from 1763 to 1785. So much history is paid attention to the northern colonies in historical accounts in movies and documentaries about the Revolution, that most people forget the South saw its own share of battles and hardships during the fight for independence. Most of the South’s involvement comes from historical records and personal accounts.
The story of The Hornet’s Nest centers on Ethan Pratt, a Pennsylvanian who moves to North Carolina and finally settles in Georgia with his wife, Epsey. Pratt struggles with the pressures from friends, neighbors, family, and society to become involved in the ever increasingly tension between the colonists and England. It becomes a tug of war for Pratt who is seemingly content with is life.
The strongest part of the book was the amount of research that Carter did. This gives the book credibility because most of the research comes from journals, autobiographies, maps, and other documented accounts. These primary sources served as the foundation of which Carter centered his novel. Librarians and other historians about the South’s involvement during the Revolution also gave Carter a wealth of information about how the Southerners fought and lived during the war of independence. Carter drove home the point that this war was bloody and that the Civil War was not the first war in which Americans fought Americans on American soil.
This was the first war in which father fought against son and brother against brother. Entire families fought against each other, friends became enemies, and new friendships that forged in the heat of battle were something that Carter highlighted in the novel. Carter captured the turmoil the South was experiencing at time through his diversity of characters. Carter portrayed each side of the battle with fairness.
This, however, is where the strong points end. The lengthy descriptive passages in the book provide a series of hit-and-run events that leaves the reader wanting more. The often Socratic style of dialogue of some of the characters often has the potentially of making the reader stop and think about what was being read. The question of whether or not this was a novel or a textbook built upon a novel set inside of a textbook that captured troubled time in American history that brings Greek philosophy into the mix, could pose a problem for some people who are not familiar with this style of writing or use of language. The rhetorical style of writing could make it rather irksome for some readers to get through.
Perhaps the biggest problem of this book was that it was laboriously dull. The goal of book was to educate people more about the South during years preceding the Revolutionary War. The reader however, cannot escape the fact that the book reads more like a history book than something that can entertain and enlighten. And it is more or less a history of the Carter family—though highly fictionalized. Carter writes detailed descriptions of the scenery and the setting. However, it is hard to imagine the situation of the characters of any one particular scene. The description serves as a reminder to the reader that this could best represent an old history book sans photos and maps. It is difficult to trudge through the descriptions with no character stepping in to give his thoughts (or her thoughts) or give his or her account. Instead, Carter left it to lengthy exposition. This is usually never a good thing in a novel and it shows signs of an amateur author.
Another major weak point of the story was that the amount of dialogue. This was a novel and it should be interspersed with descriptive paragraphs and character voices. This was not the case for this book. There were pages full of descriptive paragraphs that go on for pages. The reader could easily forget that he or she is reading a novel and begin to think this was a textbook. Instead of allowing the reader to visualize the events and scenery through the eyes of the characters, Carter opted to tell the reader what was in the scene through an overall narrative.
Characters can make or break a novel. For Carter, this proved to be a significant problem. Another issue with the book was that authenticity of the characters’ voices. This is different than whether or not these characters are believable in this period, they are believable. The characters’ voices did not have an authentic feel to them. Their delivery of the dialogue was too pure. The story is largely set in the Deep South—Georgia to be exact. Yet, when reading the book, the reader simply cannot feel them speaking. There were no inflections of certain words—something that is needed to give the reader some idea as to who the characters were and where they are from. The dialogue came across lifeless and unmoving. The Americans sounded well, American and the British sounded well, American. There was nothing to distinguish the two from each other.
Continuing with the theme of characters, Carter would introduce characters that have seemingly little impact on the plot overall. Few characters could have achieved the same goal. The amount of characters in the book brought confusion to the reader—there are over fifty characters involved in the story. Some of the characters are book are purely fictional. The main characters of the book are fictional. Carter based some of the characters on historical records, with their actions and accounts fictionalized. The main purpose of these characters served mainly as backdrops to the story to give it at least some credibility. Yet, other characters are real individuals who held to their historical roles. Central characters shifted throughout the book, making it hard to follow at times. The switching of the characters tends to coincide with the jumps in time—often of which were a couple of days going to a several months and even years. This made the book hard to get through because the reader could never fully feel connected to the story. A couple of chapters maybe devoted to Ethan, then his new friend, Kindred, then onto a Quaker named Elijah, then onto other characters Most of the characters often do not serve as the storytellers of the story—mere signposts in a historical account.
Early in the book, Carter introduces two brothers: Henry and Ethan Pratt from Pennsylvania. Henry, the eldest, moved to North Carolina where he became blacksmith. The elder Pratt immersed himself in the culture, learned about politics, and became critical of the taxes imposed on the colonists. He became a member of the Sons of Liberty and eventually married. The book followed his story in the early chapters, which was nothing more than a plot device to educate readers on history. The only difference between this and a history book is that Henry puts a face to the reality of the time. He experienced hardship and frustration over the British taxes. His wife became ill and things just spiraled down from there.
The book highlights that bad things happen to those who opposed British authority. Ethan eventually joined his younger brother, but continued to stay out of the politics of the time and remained as about as isolationist as one can get. After the British forced them off their farm in North Carolina, Ethan and his wife Epsey moved to Georgia with a few Quaker friends they knew while living in North Carolina. Almost immediately, Ethan and Epsey make friends with newcomers, Kindred and Mavis Morris. The Morris family who also come from Pennsylvania—though they are slightly an eccentric couple—are somewhat out of their element in the backcountry of Georgia. The story then shifts to focus on both families and their struggles. Then back again to other people.
This style of storytelling leaves the author little time to develop characters to develop. Carter’s use of time-jumps to move the plot along hinders the ability for the reader to feel the plight of the characters. The jumps would be from days to weeks to months and even years gave the reader a jarring experience and not able to settle into the book to fully grasp what the author was trying to accomplish.
The main character of Ethan was particularly troubling he was the central character in the book. Yet, all the reader ever really knew about him was that he was an extremely doubtful man who had conflictions about society. Ethan runs away instead and hopes another location is better. He never faces the problems around him until he could no longer ignore the outside pressures. Even though the death of his beloved brother eventually pushes him into alliance with the Patriots, the reader can never quite be sure if Ethan’s heart was in it for the long haul. In the end, Ethan would have rather just live out his life in relative peace and quiet. He did not want to rock the boat. On the other hand, perhaps he did not want to end up like his brother. He questioned his very involvement in the war throughout the book.
The climax of the book comes during the Battle at King’s Mountain. This could have been the moment when Ethan decides to back the Patriot movement with all his heart. Even his personal tragedies could have pushed him toward backing the movement. Instead, he moves just hems and haws his way through this scene and the book entire. Take the following passage for example:
None of his individual experiences or discussions had been enough to prevail on him to make such a firm commitment to fight as a revolutionary, but his earlier desire for neutrality had become impossible, and he had no doubts that he had made the right decision. (421)
The above quote leaves the reader wondering if nothing had pushed him this way, then why did he chose to fight. And if he had no doubts, then why was he questioning what he was doing? It made little or no sense. Perhaps Carter was trying to send a message to the reader that sometimes you have to do things you may not always agree with or a feel need to do but that you have to do it because it was the right thing to do at that particular moment. You have to do what was right for the nation, not what was right for yourself. It could also be that Ethan acted some sort of self-virtue for the good of the country.
The character development or the lack there of led to many questions in the book. Was the reader really to believe that death of Henry’s wife not supposed to affect him in anyway? Or what about Henry’s gruesome death, was Ethan affected by it? The reader was never given a firm idea of how characters were impacted the events that played out before the Revolutionary War.
Another question that really sort of threw itself onto the line was that Carter spent a lot of time establishing that Ethan really was not a happily married man and that he had a thing for his best friend’s wife. Yet at the end of the book, Carter sums up Ethan’s marriage in five lines. Is the reader to believe that Ethan spent his life in Georgia as a hermit? Did he return to his wife Epsey? Did he go to Mavis? Where did he go? The reader never finds out.
To say that this book was a novel is a fair assessment. It does meet the criteria of being a novel—the story is a fictionalized account of the events surrounding a real event. Nonetheless, the book itself is a historical textbook in the guise of a novel. The characters could disappear from the novel and the reader could still have the experience. The characters themselves are merely window dressings to the over story—the story of the Revolution from a southerner’s point of view.
The book itself would appeal to anyone who wants to read about the Revolutionary War (and its preceding years) and the South’s role in the war for independence. The casual novel reader might have an issue with the random jumping of days and weeks and the lack of character development. The book is in the third-person narrative. The lack of character dialogue and voice made the book uninteresting and a pain to get through.
Carter, Jimmy. The Hornet’s Nest. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2003.