HERE is the holiday gift for the history buff -- a lush narrative of the French and Indian War. Literary types condescend to history readers as an unimaginative lot (as if the nine thousandth story of boy meets girl meets trouble could possibly be a cliff-hanger). But life is more wonderful than art, and history is life in the large, a medium for the elated discovery of amazements too improbable, too coincidental, too messy and over-the-top, for fiction. Fred Anderson begins this prodigious achievement with one such amazement. We are in a glen in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania, and the twenty-two-year-old George Washington is our eyes and ears. He has just led an ambush of a small unit of French soldiers, who quickly surrender. Their wounded young officer, Ensign Joseph de Jumonville, approaches Washington with an official document. It is in French, and Washington looks back to summon his translator. Just as he does so, Tanaghrisson, the Iroquois "Half King" who has guided Washington to the ambush, cries out "Tu n'es pas encore mort, mon père" ("Thou art not yet dead, my father"), raises his hatchet over Jumonville's head, and crashes it into his skull. Reaching into the skull, he extracts a handful of Jumonville's brains and washes his hands in the pulpy gore. This scene occurs on the second page, all but defying you to put this wrist-bending book down.
Europeans remember what started in that glen as the Seven Years' War. They might with justice have called it the First World War, because it raged from Prussia to India, from the West Indies to the Philippines, from Canada to the West African coast. It featured epic land battles with tens of thousands of combatants and casualties, ship-of-the-line slugging matches at sea, sieges of forts and cities, germ warfare, forest ambushes, massacres, mass abductions, and boilings alive. In Europe hundreds of thousands died for nothing; with France, Austria, and Russia pitted against England, Hanover, and Prussia, the war there ended with the restoration of the status quo ante. In North America, in contrast, the British conquered an empire; New France disappeared from history. But -- Anderson's profound theme -- Britain's triumph was gravid with defeat. Crucible of War ends in 1766, with the bands of affection that bound Britain and its American colonies stretched to tenuity by the political and the psychological no less than the territorial consequences of victory. The American Revolution would emerge from this crucible, the first chapter of "a national history in which war and freedom have often intertwined."
THE great Iroquois Confederacy had come to occupy a profitable niche on the borderlands of the Ohio Country, between the British colonies and New France, playing one empire off against the other in a tripartite balance of power that had mostly kept the peace since early in the century. A series of treaties with the Colonies in the years leading up to the French and Indian War, however, weakened the confederacy's neutrality. In the Treaty of Lancaster (1744) the confederacy received a bounty of trade goods in exchange for renouncing its claims -- so the Indian diplomats thought -- to western Maryland and Virginia. In fact, as the Virginia negotiators knew but did not say, Virginia's charter gave it claim to land as far west as "the island of California." In the Anglo-American understanding, the Indians had traded away their claim, long honored by the French, to the Ohio Country.
Within a year the Virginia House of Burgesses had granted about 300,000 acres along the Ohio River to well-connected land speculators. Anglo-American settlers began to swarm into the Ohio Country. This the French could not abide. The Ohio Country was strategically positioned between their settlements in eastern Canada and in Illinois Country, and to defend these they commenced building a chain of forts from Lake Erie to The Forks of the Ohio, the future Pittsburgh. George Washington was sent to scout, and if possible evict the French. Ensign de Jumonville's letter was an ultimatum to the British to stay out of the Ohio Country, now the property of "His Most Christian Majesty, Louis XV." The French had maintained their influence in the Ohio Country by trade and also by gift-giving -- the office of the "father" in some of the tribes. When Tanaghrisson said "Thou art not yet dead, my father" before splitting Jumonville's skull, he was committing a political act symbolizing the end of French gift-giving, and with it Iroquois neutrality.
The war in North America, which pitted the English and their Iroquois allies against the French and their allies from the tribes in the Great Lakes area, saw battles fought from Detroit to Louisbourg, in Nova Scotia; up and down the Ohio Valley; and, climactically, on the Plains of Abraham, just outside the walls of Quebec, where the British general James Wolfe and his French opponent the Marquis de Montcalm met their immortal deaths. It went catastrophically for the British, and then -- after William Pitt became Prime Minister, in 1756, and implemented policies that treated the Colonials as allies, not subjects -- for the French. With the help of maps and contemporary illustrations Anderson chronicles this ironic war with an eye for the screaming detail.
He is a master of the foreshadowing, chapter-ending sentence:
• Against a backdrop of irresolution and disharmony in the Colonies, a new leader arrived: "Whatever union they would know and whatever coherence their efforts at defense would have, would rest in the hands of the bluff, profane major general whose ship entered Hampton Roads, Virginia, on February 19, 1755."