This summer is the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812, and publishers are marking the occasion with a wave of commemorative titles. James Laxer’s popular history stands out from the pack in its attempt to analyze the war through the relationship between Tecumseh, a Shawnee warrior who led a native confederacy into battle, and Sir Isaac Brock, a lifelong soldier from Guernsey who became a major general of the British army in Upper Canada. A number of biographies have been written about Tecumseh and Brock individually, but this is the rare book that tells the two stories side by side.
Laxer begins by drawing a destinction between two separate, but connected, conflicts. The first was the American expansionist campaign on the country’s Western frontier, which aimed for the annihilation of local native populations (the so-called “Endless War”). The second was a series of territorial battles instigated by the U.S. against Great Britain in an effort to annex the colony of Canada (the War of 1812). In Laxer’s conception, Tecumseh and Brock were central to bridging the two conflicts, bringing together troops who fought for disparate ends to ultimately repulse U.S. forces.
The early chapters are the most engaging, recounting Tecumseh’s rise to influence, Brock’s arrival in Canada, their eventual meeting and alliance, their battlefield achievements, and their deaths. Unfortunately, Brock was gunned down in the Battle of Queenston Heights just two months after meeting Tecumseh and taking Fort Detroit (the only battle they fought together), and Tecumseh died about a year later at the Battle of the Thames. With both heroes dead nearly a year before the war wrapped up, the book plods on for another seven chapters – most of which emphasize the American side of things, rather than the British or Canadian context – until it ends with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.
While Laxer continues recounting the Endless War and the conflict between the U.S. and Britain, the narrative thread that bound these stories together essentially disintegrates after our heroes disappear from the picture. The duo’s vital importance to the war’s outcome gets muddled, leaving the reader to sift through a dense jumble of people, places, dates, and events.
Laxer’s epilogue, intended to return the focus to Tecumseh and Brock, simply addresses a few enduring mysteries that dog the pair (the location of Tecumseh’s remains and whether or not Brock had a Canadian fiancée), but provides neither critical reflection on their legacies nor satisfactory closure.