Revolutionary-era saga brims with life, details

Issue April 2004 By Lisa C. Johnson

About the book …

Title: "Our Lives, Our Fortunes"

Author: J. E. Fender

Description: In this third volume of the Frost saga, mariner Geoffrey Frost's adventures continue in a journey by land to aid General George Washington and the Continental Army.

Publisher: Hardscrabble Books / University Press of New England

Publication Date: May 7, 2004

I don't want to eat only one potato chip. Luckily, I don't have to.

I really don't want to read only one novel about the life and times of Geoffrey Frost. Luckily, I don't have to.

New Hampshire attorney J.E. Fender, legal counsel for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, will publish a new novel in the Frost saga each year for the next several years. The Frost saga is an 18th century maritime adventure telling the fictional life story of Geoffrey Frost, a privateer from Portsmouth, N.H. "Our Lives, Our Fortunes" is volume three in the Frost saga. The first two volumes are "The Private Revolution of Geoffrey Frost" and "Audacity, Privateer Out of Portsmouth."

Before deciding to review the third volume in a series, I was assured that each novel could stand alone. In order to test this claim, I deliberately did not read the first two novels.

I wholeheartedly agree that you can jump right into the Frost saga starting here. From the first sentence, I was immediately swept up in the story and cared about the characters. And I bet just like me, you will look forward to reading the first two before the fourth volume is released.

"Our Lives, Our Fortunes" is exquisitely written and overflowing with the stuff of life. DNA is not as detailed as Fender's prose. There are descriptive scenes of bitterly cold New England winter days, the hint of new love and the tragedy of war. Philosophy, poetry, theater, chestnuts roasting on an open fire and some wise men visiting a farmhouse to see a newborn babe in swaddling cloth all make their way into this story.

The protagonist Geoffrey Frost is a complex and conflicted man, brave, sensitive, a trusted friend and mentor, loyal brother and son. A peaceful man thrust into war, he respects all people and animals, especially his beloved dog, George Three. Violence is not his nature, but he is constantly fighting against his own bad temper and shows surprising cruelty to people he believes have disrespected others. An adamant non-smoker, Frost has a smile that is a "caricature of a grin," a wry sense of humor and appreciates a good cup of tea with honey.

Frost has a very diverse group of people with him, including several former slaves and is an avowed abolitionist. Frost is also fairly young, in his mid-20s.

"Our Lives, Our Fortunes" recounts the continuing tale of Geoffrey Frost's life and adventures as a privateer during the American Revolution, and begins in November 1776. Frost, commander of the ship Audacity, returns from sea to his homeport of Portsmouth, N.H., and ponders his circumstances. "… [H]e himself should have visited the families of men who had not returned as crew aboard Audacity; he should have personally delivered the families his thanks for those who had walked through the wall between life and death for their ship and him. He held himself accountable for every death - each one a personal tragedy - aboard any ship he commanded. … Frost bitterly acknowledged himself quite the coward for not wanting to face any more widows and bereft mothers, for delegating the task, rightly his, to others. How was he to offset life and death against small round coins, even though they were struck from gold?"

The long journey that Frost takes in this novel is on land instead of by sea. He has to find a way to bring the food, gunpowder and other supplies that he has captured on his six-month privateering cruise to General George Washington and his Continental Army. Frost is taken aback when he first sees the condition of the soldiers. "And then the grievous sight of the scarecrows that were the soldiers of the Continental Army of the Thirteen United States as they began trudging anxiously through the snow to positions where they could observe the preparations Frost was directing. Then, collectively, the soldiers, perhaps five thousand in number, circled and squatted down on their heels in the snow, drawing their ragged blankets around their thin, hunched, shoulders, eyeing the preparations keenly, hungrily, but patiently and passively waiting. Their patience was a physical blow to Frost, and he threw himself into the details of establishing an encampment with a frenzy of guilt that kept him from looking toward the starved, silent, expectant soldiers upon which the future of the United States inexorably depended."

Because Frost is a mariner, there is a great deal of nautical language, which is compounded by the dialect of the time. When I first started reading "Our Lives, Our Fortunes," I kept a dictionary at my side. However, after a few chapters, it was easier going. I harked back to torts class in law school, before I had ever heard the term stevedore. When all of a sudden it seemed that each case contained a clumsy stevedore dropping things and pandemonium exploding around him and amongst the docks. With the number of unfamiliar terms, a glossary would have been quite welcome.

There is a great deal of symbolism and many layers of meaning contained within this novel. The names of the characters are telling and certainly foreshadow many things to come. The amount of historical research that was done is mind-boggling. Fender describes what life was like in Portsmouth back in 1776, but also is telling us about the city that he works in today. He describes various streets and the Piscataqua River, which is where the Naval Shipyard is located. No doubt this is an area close to the heart of Fender as well as Frost.