BOOK REVIEW: “How Few Remain” by Harry Turtledove (1997)


What if the South won the Civil War?

Okay, you have probably seen that alternative history idea thrown out around 2,344,154,324,445,251 times. Since this is the 2,344,154,324,445,252nd time you have heard of it, we are dealing with a concept that some would say is overused, the author must approach the subject in a way that is both unique and enjoyable. The latter, at the very least.

When Harry Turtledove did How Few Remain, he made it merely the first in a series of a world where the South won the Civil War. That series would continue with World War I, the interwar period, and World War II. He makes it enjoyable by taking historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and a very-not-dead Abraham Lincoln and turning them into interesting (not that many were not already) and exciting characters where you can't wait to find out what happens to them next.

In case some of you do not know historical fiction, there is a term called "Point of Divergence", which is where the change in history takes place (John Wilkes Booth trips on his shoelace on his way to kill Lincoln and thus Lincoln is spared). Here the Point of Divergence - covered in the prologue - is Special Order 191: a message by Lee detailing his plan for an invasion of the North in 1862. However, it never made its way to General Jackson. It was lost and found by Union troops who promptly gave it to McClellen who used it to stop Lee at Antietam. Of course, McClellen being McClellen, he did not use his advantage fully and Lee escaped.

In this alternate history, Special Order 191 is found by a Confederate soldier, thus allowing Lee a spectacular victory at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania in 1862, which pulls Britain and France to the side of the Confederacy, forcing Lincoln to sign a treaty.

Our main story begins in 1881 where the North and South are still divided. They hate each other. The lot of the blacks has not improved in the south and has possibly worsened in the north due to blame for the loss of the South. The first Republican since Lincoln has been elected to the Presidency, James G. Blaine.

The event that begins the story is the purchase of two provinces in the Northern border of Mexico, (Chihuaha and Sonora) by the Confederacy, which will give them the Pacific coast. President Blaine, an anti-South hardliner who won after years of Dem-appeasement of the South, threatens war if the South takes the provinces. They take the provinces anyway, and war is declared. The South West becomes a mobile front, and Louisville becomes a bloody trench stalemate.

Our story follows several characters as they wind their way through the war:

- Abraham Lincoln: Now disgraced and a socialist (Yeah, you read it right) is traveling the Midwest spreading the "truth" about the Workers. He finds his way into the Mormon areas which take the opportunity of war to revolt against the US.

- Theodore Roosevelt: Living in Montana at 22 and eager for action in the current war, he goes to enlist -and is turned down flat. He then decides since they won't let me join, I'll form my own. And he does: the 1st Montana Unauthorized Regiment.

- Alfred von Schlieffen: Works at the German embassy in Washington, he becomes Germany's observer with the US Army. He becomes a chorus, commenting on the progress (or lack) of the US Army. He is shocked by

- Custer: Custer never fought, or was never crushed at Little Big Horn and so he is still alive. Of all the characters featured here, Turtledove makes him the most unlikeable. After winning a victory in Texas, he sent with General Pope to put down the Mormons. Which he does - brutally.

- Samuel Clemens: Mark Twain! Unfortunately, here he has not become a novelist. Instead, he is the editor for the San Francisco Chronicle and a huge critic of the war from the onset. He is also a smart-ass. If there is any humor in this book, he provides it.

- Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson: General Jackson survived the war and is now head of the Confederate Army. Thomas Jackson proves himself to be Lee's heir by being a superior commander to any in the North. He bogs down the Union army at Louisville.

- Jeb Stuart: Is commander of a Confederate cavalry force that first secures Chihuaha and Sonora and then takes on US forces by linking up with Geronimo and sets him loose (warpath time).

- Frederick Douglass: The famous black abolitionist is our main viewpoint into the lives and treatment of Black Americans after the "War of Secession" as the Civil War is called in this timeline. Turtledove does a good job describing his various responses to the various treatments he receives at the hands of those he meets (from the out-right bigots to the kind colorblinds). He goes to Louisville as a reporter for a Northern newspaper. He supports the war as a way to possibly liberate the slaves.

Other minor players include Geronimo, the old but fierce and mystical Apache; President James G. Blaine, the President of the United States, who rushed headlong into a way he was not ready to fight; General Pope, the brutal general with a grudge against Abraham Lincoln; and James Longstreet, now President of the Confederacy, he is a brilliant politician and diplomat on the world stage. There are others.

Each of the characters mentioned above (and even the minor ones) are well-drawn and three-dimensional in the real sense. Not the ‘I’m-really-a-bad-guy-because-mommy-did-not-love-me-enough‘ way, but in the ‘I-believe-slavery-is-the-will-of-God way.’ He treats Jackson's views on slavery as real views held by a real, intelligent person, not straw-man ideas that are so often used today in television, while at the same time using Douglass to show how morally wrong these views are. You grow to love these characters (except Custer, Turtledove has it in for him). Heck, even when Lincoln is spouting off his looney rhetoric, you root for him.

And there are battles, but they are usually described via after-action reports, from far away, or through the telegraph poles going up to the front. Most of the views of the battle come from the commanders.

But there is a flaw: As a reviewer on noted, the first 50 pages are slow. Characters are introduced, settings built, international relationships established, and states of the nations are explained.

Between page 50 and 100 it picks up speed and never lets up.

Despite that flaw, the novel is a fun read. I have to admit, as a History Major, I am biased towards this book because of its genre. It shows you a world that might have beenm and entertains you while doing so.