With Desperate Sons, Les Standiford aims to tell a fresh story about a seemingly familiar subject, one covered in thousands of books and academic treatises and taught (and mythologized) to millions of schoolchildren: the American Revolution.
His under-explored entry point into this well-trod terrain is the rise of the Sons of Liberty, the disparate band of radical leaders with divergent geographic and financial backgrounds who risked their lives in the pursuit of independence from the British crown. It’s a deep dig into a narrow historical niche, but at 260 pages of text, doesn’t read like one.
In Standiford’s retelling, the revolution was far from a foregone conclusion. In the early days of the fight, Founding Fathers like Samuel Adams were viewed with skepticism by the colonial masses.
Most of Desperate Sons is viewed through a prism of the economic realities of the times. With the end of the French and Indian Wars in 1763, the British economy was in tatters, the nation saddled with massive debts run up to expand and defend its growing global empire. The situation wasn’t much better in the colonies. Many were out of work. Housing and land prices were plummeting after the first American real-estate bubble had burst. (Sound familiar?)
In this fervid environment, the Brits decided, with zero input, to tax the hell out of their colonial subjects to help pay down the expenses they incurred protecting the American frontier.
Starting in an Albany barroom, spasms of mob violence — some orchestrated, some spontaneous — erupted throughout the colonies, initially aiming their ire at loyalist functionaries appointed to collect the new taxes and later at trigger-happy British troops ordered to protect arriving ships laden with goods subject to the taxes.
These far-flung chapters organized and set up committees of correspondence that led to the Continental Congress and became the de facto news services of the day — spreading reports of organized revolt in Charleston, a ship-burning in Providence, bloodshed in Boston.
Some of the Founding Fathers may have fought for highly principled reasons such as “no taxation without representation,” but Standiford posits the working masses who provided their clout followed largely out of economic self-interest, not revolutionary fervor. Once again, it was Ye Olde Economy, Stupid.
While delving into the revolutionary undercurrents of the 1760s, Standiford repeatedly draws comparisons to the 1960s counterculture movement, sometimes with clunky results. Envisioning Samuel Adams in the same breath as Huey Newton or Stokely Carmichael is hard work, but Standiford tries.
A more successful parallel: The turning of public opinion against the British after the Boston Massacre is similar to the tipping point with American public opinion against the Vietnam War after the bloodshed at Kent State.
Give Standiford his due. Known locally as the director of Florida International University’s creative writing program since the mid-1980s, and the author of a series of Miami-based novels featuring the crime-solving building contractor John Deal, in the early ’aughts, Standiford pivoted 180 degrees.
Starting with the 2003 publication of Last Train to Paradise, his popular history of Henry Flagler’s audacious “overseas” link of the Florida East Coast railway from Miami to Key West, Standiford has published exclusively on the nonfiction side of the stacks. And, with the exception of Bringing Adam Home, his retelling of the watershed Adam Walsh abduction-and-murder case, he has been focusing largely on 17th and 18th century subjects far from Florida. He isn’t just an accomplished crime novelist, professor and mentor to young writers passing through FIU (including Dennis Lehane).
Desperate Sons won’t come close to eclipsing Last Train, but it fits quite well on a growing shelf of substantial titles as Standiford has recast himself as an accomplished craftsman of accessible popular history.
Larry Lebowitz is a Miami writer.