Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir
by James Boschert
James Boschert possesses a genius for utilizing great yarns to draw readers into historical and other events and circumstances we previously knew little to nothing about. In this most recent Boschert read, Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir, the author sets his titular character’s adventures within and shortly following the 1799 battle between Revolutionary France and the Ottoman Empire, along with their British allies.
Napoleon has designs on Egypt that stretch all the way to Constantinople and India, even after his catastrophic loss at the Siege of Acre not long before. Commodore Sir Sidney Smith lands his ships at Abukir, on Egypt’s northern coast, with the goal of further demoralizing and defeating French troops, though he underestimates their resolve as well as the Turkish commander’s leadership style, and the battle is every bit as dramatic and horrific as the novel’s cover image hints.
Midshipman Duncan Graham himself, though introduced early on, takes on a greater role only later in the story when the Scot finds himself trapped behind enemy lines. Having reflected on the events that led him not only to this moment, but also this era in his life and lack of money to buy his way to advancement, his path forward is tested sorely as he and a British spy attempt to make their way back to the sea and their squadron.
The point at which Graham finds himself in dire straits marks a turning, whereby Boschert transitions us from backstory and development to the meat of the tale. It takes on a somewhat lighter tone, which is brilliant given the battle we’d just witnessed, one with a grim outcome and lasting visual reminders. He balances Graham’s fears and abilities deftly, and does something similar with his circumstances, which are certainly frightful, but also at times comical.
Boschert has previously established his dexterity with word choice, and in Midshipman Grahamhe utilizes it to forge the continuity of the balance he addresses. For instance, his omnipotent storyteller doesn’t choose sides, commenting frankly on the skills and shortcomings of French, British and Turks alike. Moving into greater nuance, the author also pairs deadly settings with simply lovely descriptive passages, at times signaling the necessity but also fruitlessness of war. We happen upon a “velvety silence” within a city in which the rats are so bold that they take the time to “amble,” rather than, say, scurry, even in the presence of man and canine.
At other moments the natural surroundings personified even act as his enemy, such as when Graham continually blunders into “low bushes, which tried to trip him up or raked his face with their spiteful thorns.” The tall ruins of a cityscape “jutted up over the other buildings looking like rotten teeth.” Boschert has demonstrated the prowess of his word choice before, and we see these are more than merely pleasant-sounding or clever word combinations: they perform a function within his story that do more than set the stage as Graham walks amongst what they represent, how they grow him and the trajectory in which history moves.
To that end Boschert engages in a bit of historical foreshadowing as well, at least in terms familiar to us. A literal bloodbath, following the Battle of Abukir, prompts a British major to cry, “The water is like a sea of poppies all around; I have never seen the like!” When the same officer continues to express his dismay as he sips on wine, Boschert illustrates to us the dual capacity of forgetfulness as well as mental self-preservation.
While this particular battle is unfamiliar to many, especially those not especially schooled in the Napoleonic wars, Boschert remains true to his standard by skillfully engaging us in a narrative, and even when we think we know the outcome, the lead to that moment is the story. Moreover, with him creating a fictional character, rather than simply re-telling the story from a historical figure’s point of view, apart from escaping the multitude of such narrations, sets up the ability to embed commentary on Georgian society and the mores of the time, including character representation of countries within the British union and the changes each were undergoing.
We would add that the novel requires an additional proofreading to benefit its presentation, though as a tale it still is able to convey a marvelous sense of adventure, growth, compassion, daring and drive. Boschert writes that, “We may not be done with this young scamp as yet,” and given Duncan’s affability, enterprise and eagerness to cultivate who and what he is, we certainly hope we aren’t done, as we part ways with his character in a manner that speaks perhaps the most to the potential of what he has before him and the empire of which he is a part.
The author supplied a free copy of
Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir
to facilitate an honest review.