A Ballad of Love and Glory
This is a novel about John Riley of the St. Patrick’s Battalion, deserters who escaped the U.S. Army’s contemptuous treatment of Irish and other immigrants during the Mexican American-War (1846-48), and then fought for Mexico. Grande also takes inspiration from a John Greenleaf Whittier poem about Mexican nurses during the war and combines the stories.
Riley experiences many instances of U.S. Army officers cruelly mistreating the foreign-born recruits who joined the army out of poverty and desperation. This leads him to swim across the Rio Grande to join his fellow Catholics on the Mexican side before war is actually declared. Ximena is the widow of a Mexican rancher, learned in native healing arts; she elects to stay and nurse for the army rather than flee ahead of the coming conflict. Mexico makes Riley an officer and gives him charge of the artillery, so he and Ximena often meet in the course of their duties.
Riley has a wife back home in Ireland, but he nevertheless begins to fall in love with Ximena. Bad decisions by Mexican generals put the St. Patrick’s Battalion at risk of being captured by the Americans as they invade, and Riley is in danger of being hanged if he’s caught.
Not much is known about Riley’s life, which gives novelists free rein to imagine what he was like. Grande makes Riley and Ximena’s romance very touching and gives him a sympathetic motive for his act of desertion. I was appalled at the treatment the immigrant soldiers endured, an aspect of the war not covered in my history classes in school. Parallels can be drawn between society’s attitudes towards immigrants then and now.
There are about equal measures of military detail and romance, which will appeal to two categories of fiction fans. Recommended.