**spoiler alert** Well, well, well. I finally got a truly fantastic First Reads books. I almost don't compete for them anymore, because I want to like...more**spoiler alert** Well, well, well. I finally got a truly fantastic First Reads books. I almost don't compete for them anymore, because I want to like them so bad and I want to give good reviews to new and first-time authors, and the ones I've won before have just been really really ridiculously not good. But the worm has turned! This book is great.
Here's the idea: Elihu Washburne is appointed Minister to France, goes over, and gets caught up in a war, siege of Paris, and then a revolution in quick succession. He's kind of sickly (malaria, it seems), a bit melodramatic (kind of eyebrow-raising how many times he thinks things have never before been seen in the annals of human history), and not very suave (lots of shirt-sleeves, plainspokenness, etc.). Pretty much the entire diplomatic corps deserts Paris in advance of the Prussian army's arrival, but Washburne stays because he feels it's his sacred duty to the public service to remain as long as any Americans are there. And while he's there, why not work on behalf of poor Prussians rounded up and imprisoned for no reason? Why not serve as the de facto Minister for the nations that have fled, getting visas for their citizens to leave the country? Why not try to facilitate the release of the Archbishop of Paris, taken hostage by the Commune? Well, he did all of that, and more!
Washburne was famous for what he did at the time -- written up in all the papers, deemed a credit to the nation, got written proclamations from the President and the Prussian king and the Vatican and and and. When he finally died, they flew flags at half-staff in every State Dept building world-wide. That's some pretty serious stuff. But this book came about because they recently discovered that in addition to his correspondence with the Sec. of State, he kept a detailed diary and corresponded almost daily with his (huge) family, so there was so much more information available to tell the story than we'd previously thought. This book is upwards of 90% direct quotes from the source material, but his writing is engaging and it in no way feels like reading a million footnotes. It's a page turner, I'm telling you!
Reading about the siege from someone who lived through it, but had rations and access to outside news, was kind of jarring. In one anecdote he'd tell how much people were paying for rats at butcher shops (different price if it's long-tailed, FYI), and then he'd list the menu from the dinner party he attended. It's not like he experienced no deprivation whatsoever -- he had to send his family away and missed them terribly, and at one point he ate horsemeat cooked over an open flame -- but you couldn't get a real feel for how bad it actually was. This is not to hold that against Washburne. Reality is reality, and in reality he was not going to starve to death. And he really did take responsibility for an astonishing number of people, many of them destitute, and sent money and his own provisions when he heard that any of them were in trouble. But it was always a little discomforting to be reading of him so sympathetically and then realize that he actually had it pretty good, relatively speaking.
Another thing I realized is that, having never lived in a war zone (thank you luck/fate/providence/spaghetti monster), I was really thrown by the descriptions of daily life. As a for instance, when the French Army retook Paris from the Commune, in an honest-to-goodness military assault on the city, Washburne reports (outraged) that two innocent Americans were pulled from the restaurant where they were eating and arrested, and he had to go get them out of jail. It's like, wait, you kept your reservation during an assault on the city?
The Commune stuff was interesting, but I feel like I don't really understand what they were hoping to accomplish. Punish the government that screwed up the war, yes; take control of the means of production, yes; but then they didn't ... produce anything. And the plan to burn all of Paris to the ground was maybe not so smart. I would have liked to have seen some numbers for the murders they carried out; Washburne thought their reign of terror was without precedent in human history (even though France had an actual Reign of Terror 80 years earlier, that I think was a slightly bigger deal, but what can I say, Elihu's kind of excitable), but there weren't a lot of facts attached to that accusation. Like, a list of crimes.
ANYWAY. This book was incredibly readable, makes you proud of a folksy American diplomat (kind of like In The Garden of Beasts in that regard), and can teach you a few things about history. If you like memoirs, biographies, or historical nonfiction, I say pick it up!(less)