June 5, 2013

Finest Hour 143, Summer 2009

Page 49

Imperial Kelly

Imperial Kelly by Peter Bowen (Crown, 1992). Portrayal
Worth Reading

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By Peter Bowen

Caveat. The ratings for this book—no longer in print but easily found online for less than $10—are based on the assumption that you’ve read and enjoyed any of the Sir Harry Flashman novels by the late George MacDonald Fraser. If you’ve read the Flashman novels and didn’t like them, you’re not going to like this book. If you’ve heard of Flashman but never read of him, and consider yourself a history buff, you might want to put off reading Imperial Kelly until after you’ve tried one or two of Fraser’s novels about Victorian England’s greatest fictional rake.

In Fraser’s books Anglo-American history was never easier to digest. From the Charge of the Light Brigade to Custer’s Last Stand, the handsome and cowardly Harry Flashman was there, always looking to save his skin and bed as many women as possible. Scholarly footnotes and appendices in these often hilarious novels attest to the accuracy of the historical background and characters.

In the Flashman tradition is Imperial Kelly, one of four historical novels about the real-life American frontier fighter and Indian scout Luther “Yellowstone” Kelly, who wrote his own memoirs. The novels recount Kelly’s fictional adventures. It’s “Flashman Lite,” without Fraser’s scholarly footnotes, appendices or ingenious plots woven from real history. I enjoyed it because it’s clearly of the Flashman genre, including the sex, remindful of Flashman’s cynicism and reluctance to fight. Unlike Sir Harry, Kelly is no coward. But, like Fraser’s Flashman novels, the historical background is fairly accurate.

“Yellowstone Kelly” is recruited on the eve of the Spanish-American War and against his better judgment—by thenAssistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt (“Teethadore” to Kelly). He is sent west to recruit Rough Riders, then reluctantly accompanies TR to Cuba. After becoming president, TR sends a still reluctant Kelly to South Africa to observe the Boer War, where he meets young Winston and his mother Jennie, whom he has known previously, biblically and otherwise.

The plot resembles Fraser’s Flashman novels in that it’s about Kelly trying to make it home, but it’s not as compelling because Flashman has a home, a loving wife and an undeserved hero’s reputation to return to. And Flashman’s escapes are far more perilous than Kelly’s. Imperial Kelly had good reviews and pales only in comparison to Fraser. Hence two stars for “worth reading.”

I fault the portrayal, through Kelly’s narrative, of Roosevelt and Churchill. Much of it is accurate, entertaining and funny, but there are moments where Bowen’s animosity towards TR and WSC takes us into the realm of caricature, destroying the verisimilitude he has built. The accurate moments outweigh the inaccurate ones, but it doesn’t take much to suspend the belief any novel requires. And Bowen doesn’t give you those glorious Fraser footnotes, which cite scholarly sources to persuade you to accept the tale.

Bowen’s portrayal of Jennie Churchill is however quite good. You can see that he likes and admires her, as does his protagonist Kelly, who is in his early fifties. It’s true that Jennie slept with a number of men (even if biographers like William Manchester and Ralph Martin have grossly exaggerated the number). But I doubt they would have included someone like Kelly. Sir Harry Flashman, maybe—he shared some characteristics with the real-life Count Charles Kinsky. But there are things about which Sir Harry, like Jennie, didn’t kiss and tell.

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