The Wessex Turncoat

Written by Michael E. Wills
Review by Richard Abbott

The Wessex Turncoat follows apprentice blacksmith Aaron Mews, from his home near Fordingbridge, Hampshire, through forced entry into George III’s army, over to Canada. The second half of the book describes his part in the disastrous 1777 campaign against the rebellious American colonies.

The period and setting were new to me, and it was an interesting narrative choice to follow – a failed campaign rather than a victorious one. This threw the focus on Aaron himself, who comes over as a passive character, though loyal and very much a survivor. Many of the characters are stereotyped – the nice corporal, the nasty sergeant who is actually well-meaning, etc – and the main strengths are the descriptions of the age. Aaron is propelled here and there by his superiors, and by the social structures of his time, and only near the end does he start to make decisions for himself. Appropriately, his dominant experiences are of loss and difficulty.

There are several plot lines which are raised but never resolved. This probably reflects Aaron’s own inability to pursue them, but in the context of a novel they are frustrating. Similarly, the ending was left unclear, and I would have preferred to know more about the choice Aaron is making: is this perhaps when he becomes a turncoat? The later chapters are rushed in comparison to the gradual unfolding of earlier ones.

The book is well presented and proofread and reads as gentle in content – war, hardship, sex and violence are constant parts of Aaron’s life, but are described in very mild terms, which would make this suitable for younger readers as well as adults. The story will appeal to those wanting to immerse themselves in depth into lower-class, seventeenth-century rural and military life. It also delves a little into the cultural mix of the emerging United States.