985, the Discovery of America: Excerpts from the Journal of Harald, the Younger by Brian Cherry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Common wisdom dictates that "history is written by the victors." If this applies to humorous historical fiction as well, then color Brian Cherry uproariously victorious for his seamless blend of fact and fable.
"This is the history of the first discovery of America, if it had been told by Douglas Adams," Cherry states. He isn't kidding. His fictional protagonist, initially a 12-year-old stowaway on Bjarni Herjolfsson's ill-fated longship bound for Greenland, introduces himself as "Harald, Harald the younger, and I am seasick. . . . The thought of some of the new names I'll get from [the crew], like 'Harald the Messy' or 'Look out below Harald,' make Harald the younger seem very comfortable."
The laughs don't stop there as the reader follows Harald's account of the true if accidental discovery by Herjolfsson of America (or Vinland, as the Vikings later dub it), the eventual colonization under Leif Eiricksson, and other key events recorded in Harald's "journal." Grim reality interjects itself in the form of Harald's experiences as a suspected mutineer, the violent deaths of his erstwhile crewmen and, later, a close friend and mentor. To this tally Cherry adds the even more graphically violent -- and senseless -- deaths of native Vinlanders, whose sole crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This only makes the humor all the more appreciated, such as the running gag of Harald's falcon, which prefers to perch on Harald's head. (Now we know where medieval European millinery fashions originated, too.) In addition to seafaring excursions and adolescent plots to invade Madam Grunnhilde's establishment of ill repute, Harald chronicles a lifelong spiritual journey presented with a deft balance of sensitivity and pragmatism rarely found in contemporary fiction.
That's the good news.
The passage of time depicted in chapter transitions varies between 15 seconds and 15 years, often without any clear indication of the duration involved. Billed as being "Excerpts from the journal of Harald the Younger," 985: The Discovery of America would have better served readability by using a journalistic format with dated entries.
In addition, copyediting seems all but absent. Never have I seen more typos and "word-os" (such as the use of "gate" rather than "gait" to describe how a horse moves) per square inch than in 985: The Discovery of America. But it's a testament to the book's overall merit that I not only finished, despite the myriad errors, but still enjoyed the story immensely.
Too bad they couldn't make history this entertaining in school. I look forward to reading more from this talented new author. Here's hoping the wait proves closer to 15 seconds than 15 years.
And thanks, Brian, for all the herring.
(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)
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