William H. White,
The Greater the Honor
(Tiller, 2003)

The First Barbary War -- America's first military conflict since the end of the Revolution -- set the fledgling U.S. Navy against the sea-going might of Tripoli and other corsairs hindering trade in the Mediterranean Sea. It is not, however, a period that gets much ink from contemporary writers.

William H. White, best known for his trilogy set during the War of 1812, sets things to right with The Greater the Honor, a novel that sets fictional midshipman Oliver Baldwin in the heart of the action.

Baldwin is inexperienced and somewhat naive, and his tendency toward hesitation makes one wonder if he could ever have the makings of a cunning Hornblower or bold Aubrey. But Baldwin isn't the hero here; rather, White sets him among numerous real, larger-than-life naval figures, such as Commodore Edward Preble, who commanded the blockade of Tripoli in 1803 from the deck of the mighty USS Constitution, plus Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, Isaac Hull, James Lawrence and more. Through Baldwin's eyes, we see the burning of the captured frigate, Philadelphia, as well as the bombardment of the walled city and attacks on various vessels in the Tripoli fleet.

There are some weaknesses, however, that might put off some readers. Perhaps less attention could be paid to the squabbles among Baldwin's fellow midshipmen aboard the brig Argus, the schooner Enterprise and a captured enemy ketch. Also, White spends entirely too much time in Baldwin's head. It's one thing to ponder an action, but young Oliver thinks and rethinks everything that happens in this book, and then he goes back to think on it again. Let's hope that's a trait he outgrows quickly.

More annoying is White's habit of quoting back phrases he just used a sentence or two before. "You should write the review this instant," my wife said. Finding it hard to argue, I decided to "write the review" right away.

But these minor failings pale beside the greater good of an exciting, detail-filled novel about an era of American history too often ignored. Baldwin provides a clear window through which to view these naval actions, and I look forward to his insights into the events leading up to the War of 1812 in White's sequel, In Pursuit of Glory.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Tom Knapp

5 December 2009

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