The Life and Times of Captain N. – Douglas Glover
During the colonial period and Revolutionary War, New York had many influential loyalists (Tories) that had no time or sympathy for hot-headed revolutionary talk from Boston. They also criticized Boston’s cheating during the non-importation crisis. Still, there were plenty of patriots (Whigs) too. The beginning of the American Revolutionary War revealed many kinds of divisions among local people, as well as unity, because people had to make social, political, and ethical choices.
Tories and Whigs making choices lead to civil war on the Niagara Frontier, the land bordering the eastern Niagara River and southern shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and is part of the region known as Western New York (where I live). It was an ugly war of Patriot neighbors versus Tory neighbors. The conflict also broke up the confederacy of Indians and set different bands against each other. A vicious parallel of property confiscations by the Patriots, raids, burning of farms and villages, revenge, massacre and ordinary people caught between irregular armed forces brings to mind the guerilla war in Missouri during the Civil War.
With this war within a war as background, this 1993 novel is about the lives of three literal head cases. Captain Hendrick Nellis, a loyalist, suffers migraines due to anxiety. His severe stress is caused by battle and fear of his entire world being turned upside down. "It is a strange thing," he thinks during a skirmish, "to fight a war over ground where you played foxes and hound as a boy and courted your wife and watched your children tumble in the hayricks."
Nellis’ son, Oscar, is a neurotic teenaged patriot who alternately moons over a love object who treats him meanly and wildly fantasizes about becoming a hero of the revolution. Oscar is lost and angry enough at his father for abandoning the family to go to war that he wants to kill him the next time he sees him.
Mary Hunsacker barely escapes when her family is massacred by loyalist Indians. To keep her in line, the Indian warrior Scattering Light bashes her head with a war club, which calls for a disc the size of a sovereign to be inserted in her skull by a doctor who doesn’t know what he’s doing. She experiences pain “as if Scattering Light's death maul had split me off from myself," and in nightmares she enters "some strange state between being born and giving birth."
Glover has his characters question their identities in the hallucinatory ways that we expect in post-modern novels. Nellis paints his face like an Indian, just like his headaches: “When the pain reaches my forehead my face is suddenly split in two. The right side is on fire, and the left is in shadow.” With the flexibility of youth, Oskar plays Patriot, then Tory, then Patriot again by writing letters to Gen’l Washington. Mary’s captor’s wife has threatened to stop sleeping with him if he doesn’t find a replacement for a dead daughter, so kidnapped and brain-injured Mary has to adjust to Indian life, which at least does not entail daily beatings from parents.
This is a short novel and more readable and plot-driven than post-modern novels usually are. It’s not a real pretty story (the pus-filled details are much in keeping with the 18th century, after all - think of Tobias Smollet), but it gives a disquieting eerie sense of what ordinary people probably went through and how they felt about their worlds being turned upside down in civil conflict during the Revolutionary War.