3 out of 4 stars
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Private Tom Machin joined the British army in 1772 for one reason only: to escape from England. He knew he could never overcome his humble origins if he stayed, but he was too poor to book passage to anywhere else. Joining the army, he reasoned, would be his one-way ticket to the new American colony, where, after six months of uneventful service, he would be discharged and could refashion himself as an American, finally free from rigid social hierarchy and able to become whatever he pleased.
But when the Revolution begins, Tom finds himself trapped on the wrong side of the battlefield, fighting in the name of the very oppressor he sought to escape. In a desperate bid for liberty, he deserts the British and joins the rebels, who quickly recognize what a gem they have in him.
Maintaining control of the Hudson River is vital to the rebels' war strategy, but they can’t seem to keep British ships out of their waters. In answer, Tom, an engineer by training, develops a radical idea to blockade the river with a mighty iron chain stretching its entire third-of-a-mile width. The plan is ambitious, and some say it’s impossible. But if the chain fails and the British reclaim the river, then the newborn revolution will be dead in its cradle. Tom becomes the pin on which his new country’s future hangs. Failure is not an option.
Chains Across the River, written by Bevis Longstreth, is a historical fiction novel set during the American Revolutionary War. It depicts a plausible but fictionalized account of engineer Tom Machin and the development of the 65-ton “Great Chain”, also known as “Washington’s Watch Chain”, which blockaded the Hudson River and precipitated the development of the fort that would become West Point.
With three prior historical fiction novels under his belt, this book isn’t the author’s first rodeo in the genre, and his experience shows. I found that all the details that could be fact-checked were accurate, and the gaps where events were lost to time were filled in with plausible explanations and characters consistent with the setting. These touches brought the events to life in a way that a less-conscientious writer could not have done. I particularly loved the human quality that Longstreth was able to bring to the character of Tom Machin, who is undoubtedly a hero of the American Revolution but about whom little is known beyond the outcome of his work.
In addition to the amount of violence one would expect in a book about war, there is also some mild profanity and brief sexual content. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the book could use a bit more editing. There are quite a few grammatical mistakes, mostly involving missing or redundant punctuation, and I also noticed that occasionally the narrator’s perspective shifts into first person for a sentence or two before shifting back to third person. I have no complaints about the storyline or the writing style, but I do feel that an editor’s review would not go amiss.
Chains Across the River earns a score of 3 out of 4 for its gripping account of an engineering marvel that changed history and the man who brought it to life. The book loses a star for its errors but could regain this star after more thorough editing. It would most appeal to adult lovers of historical fiction, particularly of the American Revolutionary War era, who are looking for the story of an underdog’s journey from poverty to glory in the name of his fledgling nation.
Chains Across the River
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