The First Time I Read . . . Welcome William Shepard

This is only the third week of my The First Time I Read . . .  series and already I have added many impressive books to my must-read list. How did the Flashman novels slip by me? Thanks, William, for bringing them to my attention.
            The first time I read one of the Flashman novels, I was captivated by the prose style, informed yet
humorous. It was clear that I wouldn’t stop reading about Harry Flashman, great villain and coward that he was, until I finished the entire series. It was George MacDonald Fraser’s fine idea to take a fictional villain – Harry Flashman from “Tom Brown’s School Days,” an 1857 Victorian novel by Thomas Hughes, set at the Rugby School – and explore his later career.
            The allure of the Flashman novels is such that inevitably I read the original Hughes book, to see what Flashman was like as a boy. The current parental concern with school bullying could take Harry Flashman as a poster child of bad behavior. He is a bully who terrorizes the younger boys at his school, and much of the plot concerns Tom Brown’s becoming his own young man, escaping the evil Flashman (the word is not too strong). So why on earth did George MacDonald Fraser take Harry Flashman as a comic hero?
            The flashpoint for Flashman seems to be that he is an absolute realist, totally unaffected by Victorian piety and melodrama. When he is in the thick of a battle (and he blunders into many of them, from the Charge of the Light Brigade to Custer’s Last Stand), Flashman may be depended upon for a quick and cowardly exit from the scene (which never makes it back to London, the Victorian desire for pious heroes trumping reality time and again as Sir Harry Flashman accumulates battlefield honors including the Victoria Cross). He has an absolutely keen eye for history, and his footnoted papers (discovered long after his death) tell the modern reader exactly what went on in Victorian times. He is a cad and a bounder, but absolutely entertaining. And that is the first rule for the storyteller – tell a story, and tell it entertainingly!
George MacDonald Fraser
            Fraser served in the Gordon Highlanders in the Second World War, and he describes his experiences fighting in the Burma Campaign in “Quartered Safe Out Here” (the title, used satirically, is from Kipling). The son of Scottish parents, he was born in Carlsle, and wrote for the Glasgow Herald, serving as Deputy Editor 1966-1969. He got the inspired idea of using Harry Flashman as the “hero” for a series of Victorian adventures in 1966, and following Flashman (1969), a total of twelve enjoyable novels comprise the series (1969-2005), and the appearance of a new Flashman novel was always a joyfully anticipated event. Fraser’s comedic gift was highly praised by P.G. Wodehouse. Fraser also wrote a number of screenplays and worked on film adaptations of his novels.
            The great lesson from Fraser is that serious writing need not be dull. With Fraser’s practiced eye and judicious pen, it is fascinating. And that, I think, is his enduring – write entertainingly, keep the reader always in mind, and respect the reader’s intelligence. His antihero Flashman, although a cad, is a keen and factual observer, and his historical references may be relied upon absolutely. But make sure that Flashman is not left in the same room with your wife or fiancée!
Over There: A Doughboy In France 1918
by William S. Shepard
            My father’s notebook from World War One long had an honored place in my study, but it had long gone unread. The exception was the entry for Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, when Dad, then 22, was at Mousson Hill in the Lorraine region, on the Western Front. Dad was in the Signal Corps, a natural choice for a man who as a 15 year old had heard the transmissions of the Carpathia as that ship tried to rescue passengers from the sinking Titanic.
            Transcribing the hard to read writing in the notebook was a challenge, which gradually grew easier. It turned out that 1918 really is a foreign country – the strategy was by no means self-evident as the young and inexperienced American Expeditionary Force prepared for combat. And looking up occasional references – such as an “explosion” in Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia, from which Dad’s 23 ship convoy sailed in July, 1918, revealed a catastrophic explosion that gutted the entire harbor – news to me, but every reader in 1918 would have understood the reference.
            The completed memoir brings alive that period, now 100 years from today, when brave young men went forth to save their civilization. I hope this contribution will prompt others to save their family memoirs, and make them available for general readers. This forms a lasting memorial to those who gave so much.

            William S. Shepard is the author of a five novel series of Diplomatic Mysteries. He is also keenly interested in American history. In addition to “Over There: A Doughboy In France, 1918,” he is the author of “Maryland In The Civil War,” a critically claimed look at the politics and battlegrounds of Maryland, a crucially important border state during the Civil War. “America’s Unknown Wars” traces five little known conflicts, from King Philip’s War, which decimated seventeenth century Massachusetts, to the Spanish-American War, that ushered in the 20th century. Sehpard hopes that these pivotal conflicts will be enjoyable reading for the non-specialist, even without the presence of a Harry Flashman to guide and sometimes mislead the reader!