Book Review: 1836
Reviewed by Kathy L. Brown
A desperate and dangerous journey; an immersive historical fiction
Inspired by genealogical research of her own family, Rose Osterman Kleidon crafts a compelling tale, seamlessly weaving family research, historical facts, imagination, and insight into human emotion and behavior into an exciting story.
The first book in a series, it describes the Kästner family’s travels from Prussia to the Port of New Orleans. 1836: Year of Escape includes everything you could want in historical fiction—engaging characters, brisk action, compelling drama, and historical facts that are totally integrated into the narrative.
Niklas Kästner, in his youth a calvary officer with Napoleon’s army, returned to his hometown after the wars, built a business, married, and had a family. But politically, the times are now growing more and more perilous.
He makes a quick decision to leave Prussia and take the family to the New World: America is a fabled paradise. While skeptical of the hyperbole, he knows they can’t stay put. He wife, Katrina, reluctantly agrees, and soon the family escapes their village under some government spies’ very noses to board Enigma, their ship to America. In route, they face an increasingly perilous series of challenges, each more exciting than the last.
1836 uses an omniscient narrator point of view to good effect, not only being able to share what any character thinks and feels, if relevant, but also dropping in the occasional bit of prophecy! After the teenagers, Hans and Will, encounter a caged lion at the port of Gibraltar, the narrative explains, “Gibraltar suddenly seemed a great deal more dangerous than they had thought. It would have seemed even worse had they known what was coming.”
The storytelling voice is successful, even enthralling, and the narrative style assured and graceful.
“The dawn was breathtakingly beautiful, the cold ocean a deep cerulean blue with crests of white showing here and there, sparkling and glittering in the morning sun, the western sky still bearing wide stripes of violet and indigo along the horizon…Enigma would soon slip between Dover and Calais and run the length of the English Channel.”
All the characters are well-rounded, convincing, and lively. The family members, while devoted to each other and their group, have their own goals. For example, the older boys contemplate and explore careers and young love. Katrina is set on recreating their German homestead in their new home, wherever that might turn out to be. The reader really pulls for each to succeed.
Like all good historical fiction, the reader learns much about the past: not merely events of political import, but interesting glimpses into daily life.
The story is a deep dive into everything from sailing ships and maritime culture to battle tactics to farming and household management. In the early nineteenth century, the ideas of personal freedom and human rights proclaimed in the American and French Revolutions were new and controversial. They set the backdrop for the family’s need to flee Prussia but also a counterpoint for conflicts throughout the story on slavery, religious bigotry, classism, war, and women’s rights.
The book includes a character list with actual historical figures identified, as well as titled chapters and a table of contents. This is a large story with a large cast, and these features will be appreciated by many readers.
Readers interested in an exciting, character-driven story will enjoy 1836: Year of Escape—as will history buffs. While an entertaining adventure, it contains serious themes with modern parallels and would be an excellent book-club selection.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Print Length: 306 pages
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