New Thing #179: Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution

Bunker_Hill_BookI'm kind of obsessed with the American Revolution. Not even the whole war - more like I'm obsessed with colonial Boston, 1770-1775 or so.

I keep reading books that focus on that time period, and I've tried to wean myself away from them so I can learn about other times in history...or even the rest of the war once the regulars left Massachusetts.

The latest addition to my library is Nathaniel Philbrick's Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution.

And I didn't even choose to read this one on my own.

I got a text from my wife one day in May. She was leaving work to enjoy a little bit of a nice day and decided to pop into the bookstore. Did I want anything? she wanted to know. I missed the text, and saw it hours later. (I worked straight through the nice day, I guess.)

When she came home, she had bought Bunker Hill for me - it was just out recently and was getting some good press. I had read about it, and how Philbrick is a good storyteller.

I said above that I didn't choose to read this book on my own...I should actually say that I didn't seek it out on my own. Once it was in my possession I jumped it up on my summer reading to-do list, and I plowed through it pretty quickly.

It's a good book about Boston in the 1760s into March of 1776, and Philbrick is indeed a good storyteller.

I expected, based on the title I guess, the book to focus more on Bunker Hill than it actually did. It was pretty typical Revolutionary Boston fare - talk of taxes, soldiers in Boston, Tea Party, Lexington and Concord, etc. - but it was one of the more detailed accounts of all of these events that I have ever read. And there were hardly any points where my eyes glazed over or something felt boring - it was very engaging throughout.

Another pleasant surprise was how prevalent Joseph Warren was in the book. I've enjoyed learning about Dr. Warren over the years - I definitely didn't learn about him in school and I've come to learn more the more I read - but this book serves as almost a mini-biography of the Boston doctor-turned political and military leader. He's really painted as a Samuel Adams-like ringleader in making things happen that led the colonies into a war with their mother country.

Philbrick offers unique takes on the Boston Tea Party and some of the actions of the Sons of Liberty in Boston, and he spends a couple of chapters going through the events of April 18th and 19th, 1775. I love reading about the messengers (led by Paul Revere) being sent out on the night of the 18th and then the engagements in Lexington and Concord on the 19th, and Philbrick devotes a couple of chapters to these events (and the ensuing chase back to Boston that began the Siege of Boston). As a matter of fact, he spends more time writing about all of that than the title battle.

And he provides some of the goriest details of all of those battles that I've ever read...which paints the writing as realistic, because those were some gory days. (I had never before read about 78-year-old Samuel Whittemore, who killed several regulars on April 19th, then "took a musket ball to the jaw and was bayoneted repeatedly before being left for dead." He then lived for another eleven years.)

I've written before, I think, about my love for Johnny Tremain - a young adult historical fiction novel by Esther Forbes. Much of the book is historically accurate...and some of the incidents in the book that I thought might be somewhat fictional were supported by fact in this book, such as the saying that the regulars marched out on the morning of April 19th whistling 'Yankee Doodle', but would hear it sung back to them before the end of the day, or something along those lines. According to Philbrick, that actually happened...give or take a few details.

One detail I was surprised not to read about in this book was that after Joseph Warren was killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill (spoiler alert!), I had read that his body was so badly disfigured that it could only be identified by his teeth. I had heard this was done by Paul Revere (who made Warren's false teeth), but Philbrick writes it was done by Warren's brother.

I half-read/half-skimmed the notes at the back of the book - they're thorough, citing where Philbrick got all of his information. (And the way I read non-fiction books, I was glad he went with pages of notes at the end rather than footnotes - I always feel obligated to look up footnotes when I come across them. It's hard for me to read books that way.) They're also, by the way, indicative of Philbrick's writing ability - they're very readable. Anyway, I was hoping to see some mention of the Revere/teeth story in there but there was nothing. So I hope I'm not making that up.

I admire the work that goes into a book like this. Sometimes I wonder if I have a work of non-fiction like this in me - I certainly have the passionate interest in the subject matter...I just don't know if I know how to go about writing the book.

But that's what I leave you with today - this was a great book...and it's books like this that inspire me to think about someday writing something that comes close to it.