Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Hessian, by Howard Fast (1972)

Set during the American Revolution, The Hessian is a powerful novel about the attitudes and life of early Americans. It is about a bigotry that serves to protect a small town, but with tragic consequences.

Near a young New England town marches a small regiment of Hessian soldiers. Hessians were well-trained and much-feared soldiers who fought for the British during the American Revolution. Because of this, a Hessian regiment, no matter how small, would have generally been left alone. However, an autistic child from the town follows them and is captured and hanged as a spy. This is witnessed by Jacob Heather, a young Quaker boy, who runs into town to tell the physician, Dr. Feversham, as well as Squire Abraham Hunt, the town's leader. Hunt leads a regiment of nervous men to ambush the Hessians, and the ambush is so successful that all of the Hessians are killed except the drummer boy, without a shot fired from the other side. This boy, named Hans Pohl, finds safety in the Heather household, and the Quaker family enlists the help of Dr. Feversham to take care of Hans's wounds. The doctor has no desire to see Hans harmed, but he knows it is only a matter of time before Squire Hunt finds him.

The novel is told in the first person from the point of view of Dr. Feversham. He is a bitter man, and not a very likeable one, though this doesn't detract from the novel. His bitterness is justified. As an Englishman and a Catholic he has faced persecution in some form all of his life. In England he was persecuted as a Catholic, and in America he is persecuted as an Englishman and a Catholic. He is tolerated only because he married an American woman and is the town's only physician. Dr. Feversham finds himself at odds with the narrow-minded Squire Hunt, and he admires the kindness and tolerance of the Heather family. At the same time, their passivity frustrates him. By the novel's end, though, he comes to see this passive nature of the Quakers as a coping mechanism, as he is ultimately powerless to prevent a horrible tragedy.

Fast does an excellent job of bringing the era to life in his descriptions of the daily routines of Dr. Feversham and his encounters with other townsfolk. In a world filled with insecurity and uncertainty, Squire Hunt's narrow-minded prejudices are a necessity for survival, and as such his values won't permit any exceptions. Perhaps the most powerful scene and also the most vivid portrait of life at the time is the trial of Hans's Pohl. Men and women pack themselves into a small, hot courthouse in order to watch a trial whose outcome has been decided long before it even began. What Dr. Feversham and the Quakers see as tragic, Squire Hunt and the other townsfolk sees as necessary. Fast reveals a sense justice warped by the prejudices of those presiding over it, and this is not just a relic of the past, but a problem that faces society even today.

The novel's only weakness is the inclusion of a couple of romantic side plots that distract from the main story. Inevitably, Hans and the Heather girl who is his own age will fall in love, but worse is the way the novel handles an attraction between Dr. Feversham and Sarah Heather, the mother and wife of the Quaker family. There are some awkward, unconvincing scenes that come out of this, particularly in the form of jealousy from Dr. Feversham's wife. It's ironic the way Fast seeks to make a point about bigotry in America, yet casts the women as nothing more than objects of romance for the men.

Nonetheless, The Hessian is a captivating read that transports the reader to a more primitive and unstable time in America's history. What Fast has to say about society then reflects on society today. It raises interesting questions about the necessity of prejudice in a society, whether it really is necessary, and what it says about society that such deep-rooted bigotry still exists.

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