Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Brief Book Review

I've just finished reading Robert Dunkerly's Redcoats on the River published by Wilmington-based Dram Tree publishers. I know the publisher well, and the author is also an acquaintance. Still, I hope to provide an objective look at this book.

The information in the book is excellent. There was certainly a need for such a book in the catalog of works on the American Revolution. More attention has been focused on the southern campaigns over the past decade or so, and this book focuses specifically on the region of the Cape Fear River and its tributaries. The book is extensively illustrated with both period images and modern photographs of locations and reenactments. There are abundant maps included, mainly reprints of historical maps. The book is chock full of good information and is very comprehensive. End notes are extensive, there is an Appendix listing all engagements in the region, another listing historic sites and markers, and the book includes a glossary. The book is thorough to say the least.

My issues with the book are mainly issues of editing. The quality of the individual chapters is very uneven. Some chapters are excellent, while others could have used more editing. It is readily discernible what material the author was most comfortable with because those sections of the book read much more smoothly and efficiently. However, there are a number of things in the book that really bothered me. There are numerous instances of redundancy; the author will make a statement twice within the same page, sometimes no more than a paragraph apart. Often the phrasing of the repeated statement is verbatim. The author sometimes uses the same phrase or combination of words in the same paragraph. Also, the author sometimes repeats definitions within the text. The most obvious example is the word "abatis." It is defined the first time it is used, which is appropriate. However, it is redefined almost every subsequent time it is used, which is unnecessary. I would be willing to bet the definition is in the glossary as well. These instances of redundancy should all have been edited out.

The chapter that deals with the internal civil war within North Carolina during 1781 is tedious and many of the books shortcomings are present within the chapter. While I realize there was a lot of material to cover, this chapter is much longer than any other in the book (approximately 40 pages) and reads like a seemingly never ending stream of small skirmishes and horrible actions against civilians. Eventually, it becomes confusing. Also, the author has a tendency to rely on a lot of anecdotal stories and incidences to make his points. Some of these are well documented, while others are not documented at all as far as I can tell. In one instance, the author admits that an anecdotal story is attributed to a less-than-reliable source and is probably not true. I appreciate the author's honesty in sharing this information, but I wish he had done it a bit more.

Finally, there are minor errors that could be easily corrected. There are typographical errors throughout. There are also a number of instances where a term or name is spelled differently at different points in the book. Even if there are different contemporary spellings (and the author points many of these out), the author should pick one and stick with it; furthermore, the editor should ensure this consistency.

Though I've nitpicked this book to death, I really did enjoy it and think it's a valuable contribution to the history of southeastern North Carolina. I should frame the book in the context of the publisher's mission. Dram Tree aims to publish correct, factually based history that is not academic or scholarly in nature. They do this pretty well. Their books usually contain End Notes and other academic trappings, but the books they publish are not considered scholarly. Dram Tree wants good historians who can write like novelists and tell a good story. Rather than subscribing to the old idiom "don't let the truth get in the way of a good story," Dram Tree believes that sometimes the best stories are the truth. Taken in this context, Bert Dunkerly's book is one that should be read by anyone interested in North Carolina's revolutionary era.


Michael Lynch said...

Thanks for reviewing this one! I've been thinking about reading this one. It's interesting to find a study on the war in the eastern part of the state, since I usually think of the backcountry when partisan conflict in the Revolution comes up.


Andrew Duppstadt said...

Thanks for the comment Michael. Despite the issues I had with it, the book is very much worth a read. His coverage of the partisan war east of the backcountry is pretty good, though the chapter is long. It brings a lot of areas into play that most people would never think of in terms of military action taking place. It makes you realize how extensive the Cape Fear watershed is.