The Neutral Ground
By Lippincott, $2.75..
SOMEONE has said that each generation rewrites history to its own taste. Our taste would seem to be for what is both tolerant and realistic if one may judge from the books about the American Revolution which have presented themselves in the past decade. Our novelists particularly have spared no detail in their efforts to be fair to the Tories, fair to dubious characters like Arnold and Burr, and above all realistic in their delineation of the uncertainty and persecution which went hand in hand throughout the long struggle for independence.
The Neutral Ground in which Frank O. Hough has centred his engaging novel is, as we know it today, Westchester County. At the time of the Revolution it was a county of great manors, the owners of which were largely for the Crown, and serene little farms whose proprietors became combatants against their will, the whole strung together by tiny hamlets whose allegiance was never sure from month to month. Mr. Hough knows this country like his hand. He loves it, and out of his affection and his skill he has re-created the spirit of the place as it must have been, first in those days of doubt when the easiest course seemed to be neutrality, and then through those five long years of persecution when neither army held the ground but each would raid it for what they could get. This story, so full of masculinity and so truly stamped with the hard, wry humor of fighting men, shows us the civil war within the Revolution which we are all too prone to forget.
It is Mr. Hough’s intention to bring the civil war home to the reader in the persons of two likable young men, Sam Hilton, the inheritor of Hilton Manor in Westchester, and Rob Trowbridge of Hartford and Yale. Hilton sides with the King, Trowbridge becomes a Rebel officer, and, as must have been the case so frequently, they are eventually pitted against each other in a Country dear to both. But no novelist can completely control his characters, and Trowbridge is so much the better man of the two that he commands our sympathies and our belief as the Loyalist never can. It is Rob who gives the story its movement and color. And from first to last it is the men in it who give it credulity. Mr. Hough has been very successful in his thumbnail sketches of Robert Rogers and Aaron Burr, Abe Kronkhyte, the guide, and James Delancey, the guerrilla for the King. This is the way men talk. This is the way soldiers behave in action and en repos. Had there been no ladies present I should not have been disappointed.
But there is, I must add, plenty of romance here for those who want it. I am sorry for this sugary content, and for the fact that the ArnoldAndré conspiracy is not treated in the detail that it deserves. Presumably the author did not have access to the Clinton Papers. But these shortcomings count for little when compared with Mr. Hough’s extraordinary picture of the arrogance, stupidity, and disdain of the British regulars, the unscrupulous profiteering which riddled both armies, and the ruthless, vengeful, and yet at times compassionate warfare which surged back and forth over this stricken neutral ground.