Historical fiction is educational. The Greater the Honor is a naval fiction novel, well- researched and based on historical facts about the Barbary War. Until relatively recently, I didn’t know anything about the Barbary Wars or even about American naval presence in the Mediterranean at the very beginning of the nineteenth century. Then I read the very interesting Pirates of Barbary, by Adrian Tinniswood. And recently I reviewed two other novels about the Barbary Wars, the excellent A Call to Arms and the sequel For Love of Country, both by William C. Hammond. And now this novel by naval historian and author William H. White. At this pace I will be an expert on America’s forgotten war in a few more years!
The First Barbary War was America’s first military conflict since the end of the Revolution and took place in the far away Mediterranean. It targeted the quite powerful states, governed by robber barons supporting bands of pirates, on the Northern rim on Africa. While some European nations seemingly came to an accord with the pirates and were able to carry out trade in the region in relative peace, the Americans were not willing to be held ransom.
In The Greater The Honor, William H. White describes this interesting war using a fictionalized form. Interestingly, while he writes about a number of well-known historical characters and their actions, he chooses to tell the story through a fictional character, the young and quite green midshipman Oliver Baldwin.
Using young Baldwin in this fashion is a device that works quite well in The Greater The Honor. It allows White to let the story unfold in a very natural manner and also permits him to show and explain a good bit about sailing, sailing ships, and life in the US Navy in those early days, from an interesting observation point in the hierarchy of the ship.
Also quite interesting is that White chooses not to make Baldwin the hero of the story: he is the center, but certainly not the center of gravity in this tale. Rather, the heroes are the names many will recognize from the history of these wars: Commodore Edward Preble, Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, Isaac Hull, James Lawrence, and several others.
However, having a young central figure that isn’t really the center of things requires a difficult balancing act by the author. In my opinion, White does a very good job of this, but sometimes I feel he dwells too much with the inner life of Mr. Baldwin. Perhaps also White is a little too eager to educate the reader at times.
That said, this is a well-told, very interesting, and quite accomplished tale of an intriguing and strange war. The historical setting is well-described and the tales of bravery and heroism portrayed in an engaging, fast-paced, and exciting manner. The Greater The Honor is an entertaining tale of the US Navy during the Age of Sail.