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American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold

by Harry Turtledove

(Ballantine, 503 pages, hardback; July 2002)

If war were a soap opera, this book would be the script. cover scanWith no less than seventeen story lines, little action, and sparse narrative, The Center Cannot Hold is all dialogue carried on by a hefty cast of characters. Only two of the story lines are connected in any way. Each line consists of discussions between two or three persons on the subject of war, past, present, and future. And thank God for those references to the past. They are the crib notes for those of us readers not on board for the previous book in the series. What we missed in the foregoing episodes is no less than the premise for the entire series: What would North America be like if the South had won the American Civil War? The answer: A lot like Europe--you'd have more neighbours, you'd hate your neighbours, your neighbours would be occupying your country, your neighbours' borders would change occasionally, and you'd live under constant threat of war from your neighbours.

With all the different story lines, it takes a bit of work to remember who is who and where everybody is on the big map of North America. But fortunately, through conversation, whenever a character reappears he or she remarks on their circumstances reminding us what's going on. It's a bit clumsy, but it makes the book readable. In addition, unless you are a serious history buff, you'll spend a lot of time running to Google to try to figure out where Turtledove is veering from actual to alternative history. For instance, when did Kaiser Bill die? How many Spanish American wars were there? How many wars were there in North America between the Civil War and the Great War? Wasn't World War I called the "Great War"? Do Bostonians say "pop" instead of "soda"? Was the term "peckerhead" in everyday usage back then?

At first glance it seems a very weird and a somewhat trivial exercise, this foisting of Europe's early-20th-century circumstances onto North America. But then, about halfway through the book, it becomes astonishingly clear that this is not so much the history of Europe but an illustration of one specific phenomenon there: the rise of Hitler. At that point the book takes on an important theme. It proposes that the tragedy of civil rights violations in 20th-century North America could very easily have permutated to the Holocaust. According to the dust jacket, Turtledove is an historian by trade. Who but an historian knows so well that events are repeated, foregone conclusions, and inevitable. Once the steamroller gets going, there's no stopping it. In that sense his premise is believable.

In this case the mechanism for the upcoming horror begins with the development of a party in the Confederate States of America (CSA) based on hatred of the North (USA). This hatred is taken out on its minority group--its former slaves. The members of this party are fond of brutalizing political opponents as well as mere nobodies who're in the wrong place at the wrong time, while crying "Freedom!" and wearing white shirts, just as the Brownshirts shouted "Zieg Heil!" while doing dirty deeds. Reading on becomes an exercise in spotting the known European events transposed to the North American milieu, much like finding all the Ninas in a Hirschfeld. "The Great War" turns out to be World War I after all, complete with trench warfare and newly developed poison gases. This time, however, it was fought on North American soil with the CSA losing both the war and part of its territory, most notably Kentucky. The result was the South's deep hatred for the USA (not much difference from reality there), allowing Jake Featherston, a loud-mouthed megalomaniac with access to the media, to win the hearts of the people. Sound familiar?

The book is not totally fiction, as some events from actual history are included. For instance, the market crashes at the end of the 1920s; Herbert Hoover serves as the President of the USA during the early years of the ensuing depression (complete with the botching of his name at the inauguration in America's favourite blooper--Hoobert Heever); and we can see that FDR is poised to become the President soon after him. If we extrapolate, we assume Truman is still fated for the honours with The Big One.

Other events are completely invented and somewhat implausible. The USA has a formidable socialist party? And they elected a socialist president? That would be a monumental shift in the American head. How could that happen? The answer lies in the previous book so us johnny-come-latelies will never know. It is a bit hard to swallow, though. Not that Americans are not socialistic, they just have no idea that communism and socialism are not the same thing. But then maybe there was a time long ago when the word "communist" was not taboo. And then, if we're juxtaposing Europe's conditions onto North America, doesn't it follow that the aristocratic South would be the repository for the socialists, much like Tsarist Russia turned Bolshevik?

The transposing of European events to North America at times has comical results, such as the reference to the USA-occupied rump of Kentucky. When you think about it references to the rump of Czechoslovakia are just as funny, but we're used to that phrase. Kentucky with a rump? Wings, thighs, breasts and a side of coleslaw, yes. But a rump?

Some bits of important history are not accounted for at all. It seems illogical not to mention what was going on with the Native Americans during this time period. Things came to a head out West in the years following the Civil War and, yes, those years are not part of this book, so truthfully there is no requirement to include any information on the subject; but, with all the retrospection in the book, if anything of interest had happened previously it probably would have been brought up. Nothing is said of what happened to the Plains Indians after the end of the Civil War when the white folks wanted a little Lebensraum of their own. The fact that Custer lives to a ripe old age leads one to believe that there was no bumping of heads over the land. OK. Things were certainly different after Turtledove's war between the states. A different group of white people held those territories. But the question remains: What did happen to the indigenous people? Even if they were allowed peaceably to continue in their landless ways, a mention of that would have been helpful. This book makes it seem as if they didn't exist at all -- and that's just too tidy. What happened to the Native Americans in the West during this period continues to have repercussions today. Their story would have been written no matter what it was.

But then there is just so much one can put into a book -- especially one that is exclusively about war. Side issues that will have an effect but are not directly involved in the war at hand are perhaps not necessary. In the end, Turtledove has included the key events relating to the rise of Hitler and that's what this book is about. And it's certainly an interesting exercise to see it unfold in the good ol' U.S. of A.

Complete and plausible or not isn't important. If you like wars, rumours of wars, and soap opera, this is the book for you.


Review by Sue Lange.


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