Reel Reading for Real Readers: The Black Count

ReelReading2My personal reading goal for 2014 is to read more award winning books. The first for the year is The Black Count  by Tom Reiss; it’s the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer for biography.

I cannot even tell you why I was drawn to this book, other than while wandering the aisles and staring at the stacks of books at Costco, I saw the gold prize emblem on the cover. My mother had just died, and I’d rushed off to Utah to plan and participate at her funeral. I needed a book to read or I’d go mad.

I remembered reading The Three Musketeers as a young teen and falling head-over-heels for all four of Dumas’ dashing men. I’d later read The Count of Monte Cristo, which I loved, and once I read the cover of The Black Count, I knew I could escape into the story of Dumas’ dashing and daring father.

Honestly, I do not know if I can get any students interested in reading this book. I doubt many have much interest in French history, although several probably know Dumas’ famous stories. I want to try though. The writing is not just informative, but at times it is moving. Reiss helps us feel the love that the novelist Dumas has for his long-forgotten (but never by him) father.

I only found one book trailer, and it was kind of weak. I’d rather introduce this insightful book to my students through the author’s own words.

Author’s essay from Amazon:

I’ve always loved exploring history. It’s like an uncharted hemisphere, and when you look at it closely, it has a tendency to change everything about your own time. I’m also drawn to outsiders, people who have swum against the tide. I often feel like a kind of detective hired to go find people who have been lost to history, and discover why they were lost. Whodunnit?

In this case, I found solid evidence that, of all people, Napoleon did it: he buried the memory of this great man – Gen. Alexandre Dumas, the son of a black slave who led more than 50,000 men at the height of the French Revolution and then stood up to the megalomaniacal Corsican in the deserts of Egypt. (The “famous” Alexandre Dumas is the general’s son – the author of The Three Musketeers.) Letters and eyewitness accounts show that Napoleon came to hate Dumas not only for his stubborn defense of principle but for his swagger and stature – over six feet tall and handsome as a matinee idol – and for the fact that he was a black man idolized by the white French army. (I found that Napoleon’s destruction of Dumas coincided with his destruction of one of the greatest accomplishments of the French Revolution – racial equality – a legacy he also did his best to bury.)

I first came across Gen. Dumas’s life in the memoir of his son Alexandre, the novelist. And what a life! Alex Dumas, as he preferred to be known, was born in Saint Domingue, later Haiti, the son of a black slave and a good-for-nothing French aristocrat who came to the islands to make a quick killing and instead barely survived. In fact, to get back to France in order to claim an inheritance, he actually “pawned” his black son into slavery, but then he bought him out, brought him to Paris, and enrolled him in the royal fencing academy, and then the story begins to get interesting.

What really stuck with me from reading the memoir was the love that shows through from the son, the writer, for his father, the soldier. I could never forget the novelist describing the day his father died. His mother met him on the stairs in their house, lugging his father’s gun over his shoulders, and asked him what he was doing. Little Alexandre replied: “I’m going to heaven to kill God – for killing daddy.” When he grew up, he took a greater sort of revenge, infusing his father’s life and spirit into fictional characters like Edmond Dantes and D’Artagnan, with shades of Porthos, too. But the image of the angry child stuck with me and drove me onward to discover every scrap of evidence I could about his forgotten father.

And recovering the life of the real man behind these stories was the ultimate historical prospecting journey for me: I learned about Maltese knights and Mameluke warriors, the tricks of 18th-century spycraft and glacier warfare, torchlight duels in the trenches and portable guillotines on the front; I got to know about how Commedia del Arte influenced Voodoo and how a Jacobin sultan influenced the Star-Spangled Banner, about chocolate cures for poisoning and the still brisk trade in Napoleonic hair clippings. I discovered the amazing forgotten civil rights movement of the 18th century – and its unraveling …

This review here The Sentinel Alexandre Dumas:  The Black Count lends a powerful voice to the impact of this biography. It also includes some audio clips from the book, which I will share with my students.

That’s another of my reading goals:  more audio books. I think busy students need to know the value of listening as reading, too.



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One thought on “Reel Reading for Real Readers: The Black Count

  1. Erika B. January 10, 2014 at 9:06 am Reply

    Amy, I love the idea of audio books! I actually just (after careful choosing) purchased my first one (ever!) for the new year. I have been waiting until the snowstorms, and need for precise/careful driving, subside a bit because I have a feeling I may just get caught up in the story and lose my way! 🙂


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