Wednesday, November 7, 2018
Book Review: 'Billy Gogan Gone fer Soldier' by Roger Higgins
Born in Cheshire County, England author Roger Higgins emigrated with his family to the United States when he was 6 years old, schooled here, and joined the US Navy to became an officer aboard a guided-missile destroyer in the Pacific fleet and later as fire control officer for the USS Missouri’s 16 inch guns. On retiring from the Navy, Roger became a lawyer working first as a clerk for a Tax Court and later as a partner in a law firm dealing with bankruptcy cases. Of note, Roger states he ‘greatly admires the practice group leader’s philosophy of practicing law, which is to get the best outcome possible for your client, never re-trade on a deal, and if you must stab someone, don’t stab him (her) in the back; look the person in the eye and then stab her. You’ll be treated the same way, when the time comes. Oh, and never sell your reputation. Once sold, you can never buy it back again.’ He continues to practice law while polishing his skills at writing novels.
Reading the biographical information on Roger Higgins is a fine introduction to the writing style of this very polished scribe. His book is historical fiction with as much emphasis on historical facts and knowledge of the period about which he writes as the characters he creates to dramatize the immigrant core of the meaning ‘American.’ Few writers, present or past, have captured that elusive essence of how this country was founded and is still supported by the influx of peoples around the globe who search for the dream – the lamp of liberty that provides hope for a better life.
The Billy Gogan story is a fictional memoir told by an old Army general of his adventures as a young man. The first volume in this historical fiction series -BILLY GOGAN, AMERICAN - opened in 1844 and now Higgins moves further into 1845 and Billy is in Corpus Christi n the US Army facing the battle line between the Mexicans and the US.
The superb language flavor of an Irish immigrant in the US is carried throughout this fine recounting of the Mexican/American war – the Irish verbiage as a special luster to the very contemporary preoccupation with immigration about which we hear daily in both words and altercations: an Irish brogue describing the Mexican stance on the nebulous border in Texas. As Higgins phrases it, ‘Back in 1836, Mexico got into a fight with American settlers in Texas whom they’d invited in to settle the country, which up until that time had been occupied only by the Lipán Apache and their mortal enemies, the bloodthirsty Comanche—the Mexicans, los Méxicanos, they call themselves, refer to the Comanche and every other Indian as los bárbaros, or the barbarians. Well, one thing led to another, including the Mexicans under some caudillo (which is what the Mexicans call a dictator) named Santa Anna massacring God-fearing Texians at a church mission called the Alamo, which is up in San Antonio de Béxar, which is about 100 miles northwest of Corpus Christi. Sam Houston, who is a real hero in these parts, and the Texian army destroyed the Mexican army and captured Santa Anna. So Texas became an independent republic, and on July 4 (the holiday I mentioned in my last letter), the Texians voted to join the Union. That has riled up the Mexicans something fierce, and so President Polk sent General Taylor (we call him “Old Zach” or the “Old Man” on account of his not acting the proverbial huckleberry above the persimmon) with an army down to Corpus Christi, which is why I am down here, a proud member of C Company of the Fourth Infantry Regiment.’
As Higgins distills the plot, ‘Billy Gogan enlists in the U.S. Army, only to be forced to battle a new enemy on the eve of the Mexican-American War. The fearsome and sadistic Sergeant Hoggs’s reign of terror is cut short, however, by a young second lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant. Billy and his companions are part of the biggest army assembled by the United States in decades, which has been ordered to the banks of the Nueces River to defend Texas. But the army is both tiny, hardly 3,000 combatants, and woefully unprepared for war. The army’s beloved commander Zachary Taylor, known to his bluebellies as Old Zach, slowly whips the army into shape over the winter of 1845-46, as disease ravages officer and soldier alike. In the spring, the army is ordered south to the northern bank of the Rio Bravo. All is not well. The army’s savage discipline causes scores of desperate doughboys to desert and swim across the Rio Bravo to an imagined paradise. War begins badly for the Americans. But Old Zach eventually wins a pair of victories that send the Mexican army scuttling south to Monterrey. Billy is then sent on a mission with the Texas Rangers, which ends in a tragic war crime. Billy Gogan Gone fer Soldier ends on a lonely rooftop as the bloody fighting on the savage first day of the Battle of Monterrey concludes in American defeat.’
Fold together the splendid Irish language, the flavors and scents of Ireland and Texas, a dissecting eye of the evils of the crime wherever it appears in the story and the result is a hypnotizing tale that defines the origin of not only Billy Gogan but of each of us at our point of entry, past historical or recent, into America. A brilliant tour de force – fortunately to be continued! Grady Harp, November 18
I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.