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.”