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Wednesday
Oct102012

The Black Count: the real deal

This, my friends, is how they should teach history: with books like The Black Count by Tom Reiss.  

I was utterly enthralled, captivated throughout my read, learning new things, making new connections between historical events, understanding, I felt, revolutionary France like never before.  

And Alexandre Dumas, novelist, whom I read as a child and again as an adult, how did I not know these things about you? How did I not know your father, the child of a slave, was the first black general in  French history, and, according to Wikipedia, "remains the highest ranking man of color of all time in a continental European army." Since the late eighteenth century?!

Thank you, Tom Reiss!

And thank you, From Left to Write, the online blogger bookclub, through whom I received a free Advance Reader Edition.  So fantastic.

* * * * *

When I was in graduate school studying Russian Language and Literature, it always seemed true to me then that the way to unlock the past, to get to know the past, was to read its stories.  Russian literature  offered so many opportunities to read not just the text in front of you, but all of the texts that had formed and influenced it, and by doing so, touch all of the currents of its time, the politics, the trends, the tastes.  So you could be reading Dostoevsky, for example, on one level, but really you'd be reading all of Europe on another, especially if you, like me, wrote down and devoured every text referenced in the graduate seminars I adored.  It was truly the perfect environment for a Type A Reader.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise, I suppose, that I loved this book so much.  It added so much to my knowledge of the revolutionary period, which I freely admits comes largely from my obsession with Marie Antoinette. And Napoleon: I've been a little fuzzy when it comes to him, but I have so much more clarity now. I am not such an enormous fan of the traditional route -- memorizing dates and treaties.  But give me an excellent story, good characters, action, and I'm all ears.  

And so it was with The Black Count.  Truly.

*****

credit: WikipediaHow I never knew, after all those years in French school and reading these stories in the original, that Alexandre Dumas, the novelist, the son of The Black Count, was descended from a Haitian slave and mocked during his lifetime for his clearly African features.  How did I miss this? Did they forget to mention it? I ate up the Musketeers, the Count of Monte Cristo, and somehow was completely ignorant of the true story of Dumas's father, and the profound impact his life had on his son and the great works he would produce.  

Over and over again this book blew me away completely.  It read like a novel.  How could it not?  An escape from slavery, military triumph, leadership among men, courage, equality, revolutionary ideals, Egypt, Napoleon, intrigue, war,  love, loyalty, false imprisonment -- this story has it all.  And it's all true.

That it's true makes it all the more thrilling.

I am eager to return to The Count of Monte Cristo, to read it with new eyes, now that I know how much love and reverence for his father Dumas poured into it, how very much was drawn from real life.

 *****

credit: Arjo TrelaunMy sister, who has been in Paris for a month now, was good enough to make a little trip for me, to the 17e arrondissement, on a quest to find the monument to General Alexandre Dumas. The original statue was destroyed by the Nazis, and was only replaced recently, in 2009.  

Rather than depicting the General himself as the old statue did, the new monument honors him in a broader way, making the memorial about breaking the bonds of slavery.  Personally, I would love to see him astride a horse, as in the gorgeous painting on the cover of The Black Count, but this is good, too.

When I am in France myself in a little more than a week, far from Paris and this monument, still I will carry the memory of this terrific book, and all that it taught me about the rush of freedoms that followed (for some) immediately after the revolution, a beautiful (for some) time in which a man of color, descended from a slave in far-away Haiti, was known as the bravest man in France, the strongest fighter, the very model of courage, and whose life inspired such great works of fiction, based on a life of remarkable facts.

I honestly can't recommend this book more highly.  It's the very best way to learn history, I'm convinced, and I feel grateful and changed, eager for more.

XX

Alexandre Dumas' works were heavily influenced by his father, also named Alexandre Dumas. In the biography The Black Count, author Tom Reiss tells how Dumas went from slavery to become the equivalent of a five star general in the French military. Join From Left to Write on October 11 as we discuss the The Black Count. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments (3)

Yes! I felt the same way while reading this book: completely caught up in the thrill of discovery and completely surprised by my own startling lack of knowledge. It was great!

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

Yes! I read The Count of Monte Cristo, in French, for French class in high school and we watched the movie but I had no idea that he was supposed to be black. Most of what I know about revolution comes from reading A Tale of Two Cities but don't ask me if I remember any of it... I think I will also have to re-read The Count of Monte Cristo (but in English this time. LOL).

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNancy

Thank you so much for that photo of the new monument. Beautiful! It really made me think that if I ever went to France, I'd have to find some more information about the Dumas family and see it for myself. I had NO idea that Alexandre Dumas was of Haitian descent... none. I thought the book was amazing, and I appreciated the attention to detail. I kept thinking - I bet as much as I love all of this detail, someone is going to hate it!

October 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEva

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