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book review

Detail of an illustration of the meeting of General Brock and Grand Chief Tecumseh at Fort Malden on 13 Aug, 1812

The majority of popular articles about the War of 1812 – and there has been a steady stream of them this bicentennial year – call it "the forgotten war." Hardly, at least north of the border. There might have been slight lapses of memory in the mid-20th century, but the war has always loomed large in Canadian historiography, and with the recent fashion for more scholarly study of native history, it has once more gained a place of central importance in explaining the Canadian experience.

Perhaps the war has been "forgotten" or maybe "misplaced" in the American historical narrative, but even among the annual torrent of Americana, there has been more of an interest in the past few decades, although the war has often been seen to serve a different purpose than it did for earlier nationalist American historians, when it was touted as a "second war of independence."

And so to the book at hand. The subtitle should actually be the title, as it is much more about the war than the two principals, Tecumseh and Brock. As a joint biography, it is minimal, basically a competent rehashing of well-known sources.

If you actually want to come to terms with the Shawnee chieftain who strategically allied with the British, read John Sugden's wonderful, immensely detailed Tecumseh: A Life, first published in 1997.

Major-General Isaac Brock (who, besides being military commander in 1812, was also, in the absence of lieutenant-governor Francis Gore, "president" and administrator of Upper Canada) awaits his biographer. (And part of the problem is a lack of sources: Was he actually betrothed to that sweet young thing in York, as Toronto was known?) As a general narrative account of the origins, conduct and consequences of the war, Laxer's account is satisfactory and reads well.

There is not much new to be learned here, but Laxer and his researcher have done a good job of summarizing and integrating much recent scholarship, especially about native issues. Some of the background to the conflict reads like an undergraduate essay – but a good essay. Along that line, for this reader, one slightly annoying practice, however, was with the nature of the scholarly apparatus attached to the book; endnotes are welcome and useful in a popular work of this kind, as they don't slow the reader down like footnotes, but please use the compacted form when repeating references.

Wars and memories of war are manufactories of myth – such as the much-ballyhooed meeting of Tecumseh and Brock – and Laxer treats them with welcome skepticism. But even in this scaled-down effort to build the conflict around these two characters, more could have been made of existing research. Both Tecumseh and Brock were martyrs, and became instantaneous candidates for monumental retellings of their exploits.

But so much of what the brave and industrious Tecumseh accomplished in gathering the tribes against American encroachment was built upon work by the earlier Shawnee leader Blue Jacket, who died in 1808. The handsome, 6-foot-2-, red-coated Brock, like Tecumseh, was both a good strategist and tactician (who felt his talents would have much better served the British cause in the main Napoleonic struggle in Europe). Both warriors can be faulted, not praised, for conspicuously leading from the front in the chaos that was frontier warfare. They paid a price and, with their deaths, so did the larger goals they served.

Laxer's book serves as a good short introduction to the war. But the best book of the current bicentennial crop is American: The Civil War of 1812, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Alan Taylor.

It is a good, well-written, deeply researched account by a specialist who knows particularly well the importance of native contributions, to both warring "European" sides, but, most important, to their own threatened interests.

The term "civil war" at first seems a stretch – certainly the revolutionary war was a civil argument, something that occurred within the same rough body politic that was the American colonies. But was that true of this far-ranging and expansive conflict between Britain and a sovereign America that stretched from the Atlantic seaboard to the Gulf of Mexico as well as into what was called the "Old North-West," the border territories that sat astride the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes water chain?

Taylor thinks so, and his view rightly re-establishes the old idea of the war being an extension of the revolution. As he puts it, it was "a civil war between competing visions of America: one still loyal to the empire and the other defined by its republican revolution against that empire." In short, it was a testing time for what kind of government might emerge on this vast continent. But as with so many political goals, it turned on military consequences.

Another short, well-muscled volume on the war, Wes Turner's earlier (1990) The War of 1812, was subtitled The War That Both Sides Won. That depends on your definitions of "sides"; the Americans remember isolated naval victories and the successful Battle of New Orleans (fought after the peace treaty had been signed) and overlook the fact that conquering Canada failed, Washington was burned and the U.S. treasury was nearly emptied.

Canadians – desperate to kindle their own mythologies – downplay the role of the professional British regular and cheer on the citizen militia and even Laura Secord and her sacred cow.

What is certain is that if those "sides" won, another definitely lost: native people and their desperate attempt to link up to stop the unyielding westward march of transplanted Europeans. James Laxer realizes this, emphasizes it and, if for no other reason, that earns his book praise.

Roger Hall, a member of the department of history at the University of Western Ontario, is also general editor of the Champlain Society.