King Henry

Written by Douglas Galbraith
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley


1915. America is debating its response to the war in Europe. Enter Henry Ford, self-made billionaire and owner of the Ford Motor Company. He is a genius with engines but curiously blind to human emotions, preferring to ignore them. He’s against war – it’s bad for business. He firmly believes that if cars are cheap enough to enable people to travel abroad, they would see that foreigners are human, too. War would then become impossible.

Encouraged by the forceful peace-activist Rosika Schwimmer, he vows to devote his fortune ‘to get the boys out of the trenches by Christmas’. He charters a Peace Ship, the Oscar, and prepares to take the great and the good of America – all expenses paid – to Europe, to broker a peace deal. To his surprise, the great and the good stay away, but for others it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Soon, the ship is full of journalists hoping for a good story and cranks and idealists of every persuasion. The Oscar sets sail for Christiania (Oslo), and, inevitably, high-mindedness rapidly descends into farce as the usual murky emotions emerge on this ship of fools.

Galbraith ingeniously tackles this extraordinary episode by having a number of interweaving first person narratives. Some are close to Ford, like his chauffeur-cum-bodyguard Ray, and the redoubtable Rosika. Others are more distant, like Inez, the beautiful journalist. Their differing viewpoints make up a rich kaleidoscope of stories which come together in an increasingly mad cacophony on board the Oscar.

I enjoyed this book – there was some laugh-out-loud humour, too – but it took too long to get into. There are nine separate stories to take on board in the first seventy pages alone, and I sometimes lost track of who was who. All the same, this is a fascinating look at a bizarre episode.