The Emperor’s American
by Art McGrath
The adventures of Baltimorean Pierre Burns, in his telling of them in The Emperor’s American, start out with a bang—literally. The first words of the opening chapter are, “The ship was ablaze” and author Art McGrath keeps us on the edge of our seats until the very end. The book is divided into chapters, not all necessarily ending with cliffhangers, but infused nonetheless with a tincture of sorts, leaving readers reluctant to let go at natural stopping points. Perhaps Burns’s circumstances—unusual to say the least—play into that, or it could be where they lead him.
Written as a letter from Burns to Napoleon’s surviving brother, Joseph Bonaparte, who has beseeched Burns to set to paper his experiences as an American in the emperor’s army, the novel takes readers through a bit over one year of life as a French soldier.
Pierre Burns, whose French mother raised him modeling a hatred for the English, never knew his French-born Scottish father, whose brutal murder during the American Revolution also informs Pierre’s perceptions. So it is that when his merchant ship is attacked by the British and sinks off the coast of northwestern France, he is recruited into what history later knows as the Grande Armée, a force preparing to invade England.
At the start, I didn’t know what to expect of Burns, whose strong personality in the hands of a lesser author might have endangered his likeability. However, he is equipped with a balanced self awareness that enables him often to recognize the effect his words may have on others, and an ability to evaluate himself with a fair amount of honesty.
In retrospect, I can’t really blame Monge for his attitude. The open officer’s slot should have allowed him to move up to the number two slot in the company. Instead, a foreigner who became an officer that very morning was to usurp his place, at least until I permanently assumed my duties as Ney’s aide-de-camp, which might not be for some time, unless the invasion commenced sooner than everyone thought.
McGrath’s dialogue, which is not only strong and succinct, but also punctuated with perfect expressive indicators, also adds to reader experience:
I gasped. “Would they be so foolish?”
Jomini nodded. “If they think they can catch the Emperor, yes….”
Ledoyen, who had listened to this explanation, jumped back in where he left off with Jomini.
Jomini shook his head patiently, like an indulgent schoolteacher.
Throughout the novel, as Burns tells us his story, we are actually able to see how characters respond, as if we were also watching rather than only reading about them. His words bring to life their actions, via McGrath’s ability to put same into simplified words that create a repertoire of complex actions, not unlike watching a skilled actor utilizing true-to-life gesticulations that match the words he hears or speaks, or the emotions he feels.
As events unfold and readers are more and more drawn into Burns’s narrative, we forget it is a letter being written and the story becomes ours. Burns shares with us his mortifications, such as when he is rebuked in front of the entire company; his infatuation with a young woman at first inaccessible to him; the methods of war he learns and his growth within that knowledge; and details of encounters that terrify as well as contribute to his expertise as a soldier and swordsman. Periodically we are given a reminder, though within methods that embrace us, rather than reveal our reading of the attachment to a letter to someone else. “How,” he asks at one point, “do I draw this scene for you[?]”
In an unexpected combat experience, following the explosion of a saboteur ship, Burns and others chase an escaped killer into a nearby warehouse.
Long shadows danced ahead of us and on the walls from the light. The dirt and pebble floor crunched under our feet as we walked . . . For some reason I felt more fear there in the dark hunting one man than fighting dozens in that house months before. Possibly the darkness cast shadows on the mind and the silence gave us time to dwell on what could be waiting for us, the same fate that met that infantryman outside with his head bashed in.
It is this access to Burns’s vulnerability as well as his strength of character, his willingness to reveal his fear but determination to stand tall that contributes to readers being able to relate to him and thus, develop a rooted interest in how he fares. McGrath pulls off the first-person flawlessly; it is truly as if he is transcribing the actual words as Burns speaks them. In so doing, he develops a sympathetic character, neither arrogant nor overly self-effacing, who speaks to our own experiences, as contrasting as they may be to his.
As the year progresses and Burns is involved in a number of activities, all the characters continually look forward to the invasion they so fervently train for. For better or worse, life goes on and Burns participates in it, even engaging in some illegal dueling, which to me were the amongst the best scenes in descriptive and action terms, not to mention the emotive fury for all parties. Burns, like McGrath, is a watcher of people and the patterns they engage in, using them to his advantage and eventual victory.
As the overall tension builds, Burns utilizes this method in the broadest of ways, also using intuition in his judgment calls. Not everyone trusts his judgment, however, and some are outright hostile to it. These are men with a great many more years experience than he, and they know the conflict in ways he, a newbie to the country and fighting forces, will ever do. As the framework of the larger story enclosing all the inner pieces grows more apparent, the question remains as to whether Burns can reconcile the outcome with an outlook held onto for a lifetime. What if the French lose? Perhaps more importantly, what if they win?
While the Napoleonic era isn’t one I have studied extensively or, truth be told, ever really had great interest in, it is worth noting again how much this book held me. The idea of post-revolutionary Americans fighting in Napoleon’s army is an intriguing one, though McGrath has much more at his disposal than an initial fabulous idea to keep it all going. I am a great admirer of saying a lot with a little, and for this book that means two things: one, the depth of many of the characters is established artfully even with only a few appearances; and two: the longer passages, especially battlefield scenes, some of which really are quite long, kept my attention and interest as Burns analyses for us his perceptions and what they mean to events taking place. Burns—or McGrath, I’m not entirely sure which—has a way of explanation that fascinates as it reveals facets non-combatants never had cause to consider, linking them in significance one to another. While the end is satisfying for the momentary ramifications, there is more to Pierre’s story on its way, and you will want to read it.
McGrath has truly used his skills to his own advantage, to his eventual victory.
The Emperor’s American sees Burns and the rest of the Grande Armée VI Corps marching out from their position beginning August 27, 1805. While not every unit left on the same day, they did proceed forward in time to their next engagement. Stay tuned for March to Destruction and events of the War of the Third Coalition.
Art McGrath lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he is a journalist as well as re-enactor and member of the Brigade Napoleon and the 3me regiment infanterie de ligne–the French 3rd Infantry regiment of the Line. The Emperor’s American is the first in a series following the adventures of Pierre Burns.
Learn more about Art McGrath and The Emperor’s American at his author page.
This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location.