Kenneth Roberts’ historical novels

Blogging about Haiti reminded me of one of my lifetime favorite novels, Kenneth Roberts’ Lydia BaileyThe first half  is set against the background of the Haitian Revolution and the second half against the background of the U.S. war with the Barbary Pirates.  The dominant character in the novel is neither the narrator, Albion Hamlin, nor his ladylove Lydia Bailey, but the giant black Sudanese adventurer known as King Dick.

Lydia Bailey was published in 1947 and has long been out of print.  There is a copy at the Rochester Public Library and, I expect, at most large public libraries.

Roberts was fully the equal of Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey/Maturin series of novels, both as a storyteller and in terms of historical research. His novels were best-sellers in the 1930s and 1940s and stand up well today. Roberts was a quirky contrarian, and part of his purpose in writing was to set the record straight and to show that historical events were different from what you thought they were.

Arundel and Rabble in Arms are about Revolutionary War soldiers led by the able and charismatic commander Benedict Arnold (before his treason). Oliver Wiswell depicts the Revolutionary War from the point of view of a brave Loyalist.  I liked them all, as I did Captain Caution and The Lively Lady, about American sea captains in the War of 1812.

But my favorite, aside from Lydia Bailey, is Northwest Passage, which is set against the background of the French and Indian War and the doomed search for a northwest sea passage from Europe to the Orient.  Such as passage is actually opening up today, with the melting of the Arctic ice.

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2 Responses to “Kenneth Roberts’ historical novels”

  1. Alan Bock Says:

    I only vaguely recall reading “Lydia Bailey” and “Arundel” more than fifty years ago but I will never forget “Rabble in Arms” and the high esteem which Robrts held for Benedict Arnold. I do not recall the specifics but I do remember that Roberts portrayed Arnold’s treason as being brought on by the skullduggery of some very dishonorable politicians in the Continental Congress and makes it look almost justifiable. I suppose Roberts is a “quirky contrarian” but this book certainly stands
    for the proposition that there are two sides to every story. I have had a “contrarian” view of Arnold ever since.

    I never read “Northwest Passage” but I still remember, as a very impressionistic ten year old, seeing the motion picture and the stellar performance given by Spencer Tracy as Major Rogers in the French and Indian War. This is an excellent movie which, I believe, is still occasionally shown on TV although I do not believe that it as yet been made into a DVD.

    Alan Bock


  2. Larry West Says:

    I am currently reading Lydia Bailey. You are right about Roberts, he did his homework. As I read his books I spend so much time researching myself because I want to know more.


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