In the early years of America, a ragged group of volunteers, led by George Washington, created the American Revolution. Many began as farmers, and yet become a part of history and are recorded as heroes. Many of these men became the forefathers of our nation and are the very reason and beginning of our independence.
In Johnny One-Eye, Jerome Charyn has used history and the rumors of the time to build a story of heroes, a tale of love and revenge, and of the difficulties and possibilities of the revolution. He has used actual events and characters in history and peopled it with imaginary characters and events of his own.
Charyn has given us a novel set during the eight years of the revolution, a gritty and difficult time. He uses Johnny as a character and narrator. Johnny is a young man raised in a whorehouse and a double agent, as many were during those times. He first comes to our attention when caught trying to poison Washington’s soup. Johnny is relatively educated and often works as a scribe, and it is during one of these missions, scribing for Benedict Arnold, that he loses his eye.
Johnny seems to lead a charmed life, getting in and out of danger while balancing his confusion and concerns about the war. He loves his king, and yet now that he knows him and understands him a bit better, he is drawn to George Washington. There are also the rumors that he may be the illegitimate son of George Washington, a rumor that seems to keep him alive.
Both sides have a bit of a soft spot for him, and yet there are those too that want him dead. He is in love what Clara, an octoroon whore whom he grew up with, and it is obvious to all in the know that the Madame is his mother. This all plays a part in this story and his mother is set as the other woman in Washington’s life.
Through the difficulties and avenues traveled by Johnny, we learn of many of the characters of the time of the revolution, notables such as Hamilton, Arnold, General Clinton, King George III and Washington himself. Set mainly in Manhattan and surrounding areas, we read of the skirmishes and problems encountered by Washington and his crew.
We learn about the courageous African stevedores and slaves who lay their lives on the line to help make this a new country free from England’s control. Full of both darkness and lightness, it is also full of real history and information that frames the fiction.
You feel as though you are there; the descriptions of the winter scenes when Washington and his men left bloodied trails because of lack of money for warmer clothing and shoes left a lasting impression on me. While I read much of this same information during history classes in school, it was dryer and less real. Charyn makes you feel their pain and also feel their love and adoration of their leader. It is what keeps them fighting in the harshest and worst of conditions.
Johnny One-Eye is an engaging character who gives us an opportunity to see the unfolding of our history from a different and unique perspective. His involvement with both the women of the whorehouse as well as his own bits of intrigue keep it interesting, giving us both a more in-depth look at reality, and offering us a different perspective of events.
Often truth is stranger than fiction, and while the added characters come from imagination, the truth of the times only adds a darker more sinister cast. The character of Johnny adds a bit of humor to a story that could be quite daunting.
If you love historical fiction, you will enjoy Johnny One-Eye. It is filled with the actual events in history and is a different and more mercurial look at history. It is a view as seen by a young man, in the middle of a time of turmoil. This would be a great book for a reading group or book club.