THE YEAR OF THE HANGMAN
by Gary Blackwood
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Although marketed as a juvenile novel, Gary Blackwood’s The Year of the Hangman is a straight forward alternate history of the years following a failed American Revolution. Blackwood does not try to do too much with the result being that what he does comes across as well thought out and concise. Blackwood’s hero, Creighton Brown is the ne’er-do-well son of a British hero, Henry Brown, who was killed in a battle with rebels following the suppression of the revolt. Creighton’s mother, no longer able to control her son, arranges for him to be sent to the colonies where her brother, Colonel Gower, can turn him into a proper British gentleman.
Over the course of the book, Creighton learns that he should not always trust in first appearances, nor should he believe what he has always been taught unquestioningly. His journey to America does not turn out as expected when he discovers Charleston is not the backwater he had come to expect. Eventually his travels with Uncle Gower take him into the heart of rebel territory, where Creighton comes into close contact with the remnants of the rebellion, including Benedict Arnold, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.
At the same time as Blackwood relates Creighton’s story, he raises some interesting parallels between the British empire of the eighteenth century and the American hegemony of the twenty-first century. Perhaps the most interesting comment in this regard is made by Creighton when he realizes, “He had always thought of his countrymen as something like the standard-bearers of civilization--ambitious, perhaps even arrogant, but well intentioned, bringing prosperity and enlightenment to the less fortunate countries they colonized. He had never considered the possibility that, to the people of those countries, they might look like conquerors instead, or that British attempts to keep the peace might be seen as oppression and injustice.” (p.114)
Set within a few years of his point of departure, Blackwood is able to maintain a close control over the events and changes which have occurred since Washington’s capture by the British and the collapse of the rebellion. He weaves a colorful portrayal of British, Spanish and French interests in North America in the 1770s which shows the complex situation which is often glossed over by a focus on the colonists’ rebellion against Great Britain.
Blackwood’s characters are also interesting, whether the traditional portrayal of the sage Benjamin Franklin or the self-improving Acadian refugee Sophie, Blackwood brings these individuals to life. Perhaps most interesting is his portrayal of Benedict Arnold before Arnold became a traitor to the American cause. Knowledge of Arnold’s eventual fate helps heighten the suspense when Creighton’s well-being depends on Arnold remaining loyal to his cause.
Because The Year of the Hangman is being marketed at younger audiences which may not have a complete grasp on the historical events, Blackwood provides a brief afterword in which he addresses what alternate history is and what changes he has made to the historical record to create The Year of the Hangman. While many of his readers will not require these notes, their inclusion is welcome.
The Year of the Hangman is an engaging story fit for not just the juvenile market, but anyone interested in the possibilities of America’s revolution. While Blackwood’s colonies never quite existed, he brings a sense of realism to them and their population which makes his version of the world come to life for the all-too-short length of Creighton Brown’s adventures in North America.
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