Book Reviews: "Washington's Shadow"
In a cozy Virginian parlor in 1810, a widow, her daughter and two servants stare at a box containing letters from the Revolutionary War written by Col. Leven Powell, who had fought with George Washington at Valley Forge. Now, in the throes of grief after his passing, Powell’s family struggles with how best to capture his legacy, piece together his story from the letters, and in the process define their own futures.
In Washington’s Shadow (Gatekeeper Press), author Barbara N. McLennan submerges readers into our nation’s start like no history book ever could.
At the forefront of McLennan’s novel is the question of who controls Powell’s story and how it gets told. Should his biography be written by sons Burr and Cuthbert Powell, both politicians? Perhaps, but they hand the project off to their sister, Jane, who enlists the help of the other women.
Sally (Powell’s widow), Jane and the free servants Nancy and Dorothy act as a chorus for the reader. Amid letters about Native American wars, smallpox and slave armies, the women amend Powell’s words to account for the people most overlooked. In this way, McLennan expertly brings alive the Revolution by making the reader feel the immediacy of it.
But amid all the domestic work of mending, cooking and feeding relatives, the women are weighed down by the task. After all, women were not at the front lines but at home keeping businesses running and their families from starving.
McLennan’s novel is uniquely meta-textual; just as we are shown transcripts of letters describing major battles in the war, we see the women’s lives intersect behind the scenes. They know they are in the shadows of their husbands and that Col. Powell was in Washington’s shadow, but that their loyalty and talents are just as crucial to the success of the young country.
And when Jane’s brother Billy is hunted down for debt by one of Thomas Jefferson’s infamous hit men — the same who drove Aaron Burr out of the country — the past gets personal. Jane isn’t just reminiscing about her father anymore, but trying to piece together how her father’s involvement with Washington has made Billy a target.
Sally’s teenage grandkids are sent off to find Billy, following ancient Native American trails on their ponies and fighting back against thugs and thieves. It’s not quite a road trip by today’s criteria but just as riveting and atmospheric as the best of them.
Reading Washington’s Shadow is like being transported back in time and seeing a country where adventure and danger lurked at every turn. Part love story, political intrigue and coming of age novel, McLennan has created vibrant characters that will stay with readers long after the book ends.
As Edward, a house servant, explains the significance of Jane as the primary storyteller, “Make believe she’s Washington on his white horse. Show some respect.”
Washington’s Shadow is available for purchase.
Barbara McLennan’s latest historical fiction, Washington’s Shadow, is set thirty years after the long
winter at Valley Forge in 1778. In this story three generations of Powell children, gather to mourn the
death of Leven Powel, the family patriarch and a devoted supporter of George Washington. Leven’s adult
children learn details of Leven’s revolutionary war activities through documents found in a locked chest.
Their sister Jane, trained as a teacher, agrees to write a biography of Leven culled from the documents.
The family also learns that Washington rewarded his soldiers in the form of warrants to land in the
sparsely settled state of Ohio.
The value of those deeds has given rise to a scam by an unscrupulous corporation, one that does not
blanch at the use of violence to swindle warrants from unsuspecting veterans. Leven Powell had passed
his warrants to his eldest son Billy who is unaware of their value and of the danger he faces from the
land-grab company. Alas, brother Billy is in imminent danger.
Part II: Indian Country and Winchester. The story gains momentum in this section as the family
determines to find Billy and warn him of danger. The cast of characters widens, and action accelerates as
the Lenape Indian, George Morgan White Eyes, Billy’s siblings, and four of the teen-age grandchildren
mobilize to find and protect Billy. Gun-toting teens along with a mule, a dog and the necessary
ammunition set out on a short cut through dense Virginia woods to warn their uncle Billy of the danger he
faces. The fast-paced section replete with mishaps, challenges, as well as mild quarrels among the teen
aged adventurers also features an unlikely hero in the form of a huge black bear, a bear that can discern
the good-guys from evildoers. Readers will not be disappointed with the drama in the woods which
includes an armed battle with local militia.
Part III, Middleburg and Alexandria
This final section brings the characters back together in an effective wrap-up to the action. The main
characters discuss not only the adventure that ended in success for Billy and the Powell family but the
principles espoused by Washington that also motivated this revolutionary family. The characters’ lives are
neatly tied up as they reconnect after all the smoke and excitement of the conflict has settled.
Though McLennan imagines gun-toting teenagers and heroic wildlife, she does not take liberties with
history. We hear about the Lenape Indians; we learn that even after the Revolution is over and the English
departed, not all Americans supported a strong central government. We see political turmoil surrounding
Jefferson’s battle to win an electoral college victory; as well as President Jefferson’s political maneuvers
against Aaron Burr and Burr’s subsequent trial and acquittal.
Through it all George Washington’s long shadow is cast on later generations even to our own. His belief
in truth, justice and equality for all still casts a long shadow into this generation.
Washington’s Shadow by Barbara McLennan, Reviewed by Ann Skelton; Chesapeake Style Magazine, April 2020