Cannons at Dawn

I would wager a good bet that few of you guys who enjoyed The Winter of the Red Snow as a kid even knew that this book existed. Trust me, you were better off that way.

Cannons at Dawn: The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1779, Kristiana Gregory, 2011.

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Now, before I start complaining, I’ll note two things: one, that this was an experiment as the first “sequel” diary in the Dear America series (and the last); and secondly, that Gregory’s longtime editor passed away before this book was written, and I wonder if the change in editing tone made a major difference to the book. It’s not bad, but it’s not what I would have hoped for.

Now to the complaints: this book is one of those that wants to zip through a ton of time super fast and consequently sacrifices good plot. So instead of having a short period of time and a story that moves along well, we have half a book of good story and half a book that’s just basically recounting facts and skipping months and months at a time. Which is OK, but not particularly what I look for in a Dear America book! The Winter of the Red Snow has charm and cheek. Cannons at Dawn is a slog.

So in the last book, Abigail and her family lived at Valley Forge and watched up-close as Washington’s soldiers nearly starved and died in the snow, and we left them as the soldiers were leaving having survived by the skin of their teeth. Now, Abigail’s father has joined up with the army as well and gone away, and their family home burns down forcing them to flee to Philadelphia on foot. But their relatives in Philly have left, and no one knows where they’ve gone, so they have to stay with friends instead. They plan to head for their cousins’ home, near the army, but Abigail’s sister Elisabeth asks to stay behind in Philadelphia and work in the hospital close to Ben Valentine, the soldier who lost an arm that she met in the last book. So it’s just Abby and her mother, younger sister Sally, and infant brother Johnny, who head towards Middlebrook near the army.

On the way they’re nearly caught by British soldiers, but on their arrival they find that their cousin passed away months ago and her husband has remarried again. So instead, they have nothing left to do but become camp followers—which is to say, women and children who follow the army’s progress to do laundry and assist the soldiers in exchange for relative safety and food. This is already a really depressing start and it’s not going to get any better. We time skip into June, and Elisabeth has gotten married to Ben Valentine and is already pregnant (which is fairly impressive considering that in January he was still so feverish he couldn’t get out of bed or write a letter).

They follow the army and befriend a black woman, Lulu, and her daughter Mazie, who claim to be freed Negros. They share their tent and work together through the heat of the summer, when the soldiers aren’t allowed to even build cooking fires lest the enemy find them by their smoke. There’s a young man, Willie, who is in the same brigade as Abigail’s father, and whose father is a blacksmith by trade, and their families become friends as well. Then the girls spot a barefoot, almost-starving boy in the woods, who turns out to be a drummer boy from the king’s army whose father was a major-general and died in a battle. Willie manages to get the boy, Thomas, to come back to their camp and eat some real food, but this puts the rest of them in danger.

What’s worse is that there’s a notice going around asking for the return of Lulu and her daughter, who are actually runaways passing themselves off as freed slaves. They’re not supposed to be camp followers if they’re not actually related to anyone in the army, which they are not, and they’re trying to keep that a secret from everyone else in their camp as well. I have to say, I would enjoy this whole arc much more if the only dialogue Lulu was given wasn’t stereotypical “black slave/ex-slave drawl,” which is what it is. “I jess call it that….Sometimes thas all y’can do, is pretend.” Really? I just…feel like there was a better way this could have been handled, somehow.

Now we’re in the winter of 1779, and Thomas has joined up with the Americans as a drummer boy, and Abigail and Willie are growing slowly closer. And now we just start blowing through time like it’s nothing! They go from camp to camp, trudging through the snow, and Johnny develops frostbite on his feet for lack of proper shoes. The soldiers are deserting and threatening mutiny because there’s nothing for them to eat and nowhere for them to stay besides in their tents in the snow. Abigail’s mother and Lulu manage to cook up a plan with an unmarried Negro soldier to pretend to be Lulu’s husband—and it works, and they fall in love! Which is sweet. And a story I would much prefer to read about, to be honest. (I would read the hell out of that story as a full-length novel. I really would. This is why fanfiction thrives, man.)

We skip fairly quickly to the spring, where Willie manages to bring Abigail some ink just before she turns fourteen, and she befriends a girl her age who’s married—Esther. And good news for the army—the French fleet is finally going to turn up, just when the British are winning all over the south. Then it’s summer and they’re headed back north to New York, and skip a few more pages and it’s fall and the British Navy is threatening the Hudson. Benedict Arnold is caught red-handed in his plot to turn traitor, which makes me want to go reread some Ann Rinaldi, but then we skip ahead a few months and it’s Christmas again. (We’ve covered a whole year in about forty pages at this point.)

They’re back to New Jersey, where Willie comes calling to see Abigail nearly every day, and it’s sweet—although weirdly handled very lightly, when I think slightly more romance is called for. This Christmas the soldiers are threatening to mutiny again, and the women are trying to stay out of the way and just keep body and soul together. The British are trying hard to exploit this, but Washington manages to rally his troops at the last minute and keep the army from falling apart.

Then we fly into spring again, and after Abigail turns fifteen Willie asks her to marry him the next month. Lulu marries her Victor the same month, but it’s all handled with such an absurdly light touch that it’s almost hilarious. Now, this is actually the second Dear America that has a girl who gets married, but I infinitely prefer A Coal Miner’s Bride, which at least addresses how much Anetka struggles with what it means to be married as a teenager. Abigail barely mentions it, which while on the one hand it’s true that she probably wouldn’t feel particularly married since she’s still living in a camp with her mother and siblings and friends, it’s….I really feel like this could have been handled better.

Anyway, it’s summer and they’re heading towards New York City, and Abigail is expecting a baby. This is SO STRANGE for a DA novel. The tone shift from the first book is so bad you could get whiplash. The Winter of the Red Snow is very much a children’s novel—it’s about everyday life when your town has unexpectedly become the site of an army camp and your country is struggling for its life. This novel is immensely different—it’s trying to be both a bildungsroman and a novel about camp followers, and I think it’s just trying to do too much for a DA story. These novels are really at their best when they’re slice-of-life stories, and when they try to cram in too much plot or too much historical drama, it just doesn’t end well. Well, in my opinion.

In the fall of 1781 they make it back to Philadelphia, where they see Elisabeth and her husband and their year-old daughter. Abigail’s mother and siblings opt to stay there with their friends and Elisabeth, but Abigail goes back to the camp to look after Willie and her father. She joins Esther and Lulu and her daughter, walking for days and days and days to Chesapeake Bay to stay behind the troops. They hike, on foot, seventeen days through rain and across rivers—Esther has an infant, Mazie is only ten, Abigail is pregnant—230 miles. This is horrifying. But they make it to Yorktown at last, where the Americans are bombing the British into submission.

Finally Cornwallis, the British general, offers to surrender—just as Martha Washington’s son is dying of camp fever, which is painfully inconvenient. The British soldiers break ranks and are marched to prison camps, and Abigail is reunited with her husband for good.

Stupidly, this book has an epilogue, which just repeats a lot of the facts of the old epilogue.

Rating: C+. I knocked this down from a B—it just was not engaging enough for me. There’s a lot of potential, and I love the idea of a sequel, but the first one was very good and this one is just meh. I think it loses a lot when it tries to become too much of a grown-up novel, and it seems like it loses its way about halfway through. It lacks direction, and instead it becomes a straight recounting of “now we went here and now we went there.” And it almost seems like it’s missing its target audience, as well. The writing and plot are fairly simplistic, which is suitable for the 10-12 age range, but there are very few books aimed at that age group where the protagonists get married and pregnant at fifteen! I don’t even know. Ultimately, this book had a ton of promise and just could not deliver after all that. I liked it. But not that much.

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