With "Jefferson" and "Jackson" to his credit, Max Byrd has written another outstanding historical novel in "Grant" (Bantam, $23.95).
Byrd examines the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant, 18th U.S. president and Civil War hero, in a book that is sure to strengthen Byrd's reputation as one of America's finest historical novelists.
"Grant" is typical of what Byrd does so well -- combine a minimum of fictional characters with splendid research, vivid imagination and, above all, historical accuracy to portray a truthful profile of a famous American. Byrd's special gift to the reader is nothing less than an intimate visit with greatness and thus a better understanding of history.
Byrd sets the novel during a brief period (1879-1885) of Grant's life and illuminates the past with clever recollections from friends and enemies. Sylvanus Cadwallader, a Chicago Tribune reporter who traveled extensively with Grant during the Civil War, provides a journalist's interpretation of much of Grant's wartime heroism.
Henry Adams, whom Byrd portrays as a mean-spirited egoist, displays the acidic outlook typical of Grant's post-presidential critics. Adams, whose education seems to have overlooked courses on marital love and loyalty, is -- and quite plausibly so -- held responsible for his wife's suicide at 42.
In addition, Byrd uses Grant's friends and colleagues to paint a tellingly accurate picture of urban America in the 1880s. The principal contributor to this aspect of the book is Nicholas Trist, a young journalist recently returned from Paris (and the book's only fictional character). Trist also becomes romantically involved with Elizabeth Cameron, the wife of one of Grant's chief advisers. Their poignant relationship, which parallels an affair in Mrs. Cameron's real life, is fascinating.
Grant occupies center stage on three occasions besides Cadwallader's reminiscences about his war days.
In 1880, Grant clearly could have captured the Republican nomination (and won the election) if he had not stubbornly refused to visit the convention floor to drum up the necessary votes.
After effectively spurning the presidency, Grant joined Ferdinand Ward in a Wall Street brokerage business that turned out to be little more than a scam. Strangely, Grant relied on a blind trust in others, something that had failed him repeatedly in civilian life, and never inquired about the firm's investments. The inevitable bankruptcy left Grant with $180 to his name. A few weeks later, he felt the first pain from the cancer that was to kill him in 1885.
It was during his final bout with cancer that Grant demonstrated his greatest acts of personal heroism. Before falling ill, he had contracted to have his memoirs published by his friend Mark Twain, with earnings earmarked for his family legacy. Dying and wracked with pain, Grant summoned all his willpower and courage, hanging on to life until he had finished the work. The result was a two-volume masterpiece whose clear language and scholarly organization made it an instant success.
"Grant" is an accurate representation of America's transition during the post-Civil War era, a transition made possible by Grant and others like him.
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