American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold
(Ballantine, 503 pages, hardback; July 2002)
If war were a soap opera, this book would be the script. 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.
no less than seventeen story lines, little action, and sparse narrative,
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.