December 17, 2004

The General Danced at Dawn, by George MacDonald Fraser

Fraser, best known for his books featuring Victorian soldier, lady's man, coward, and toady Harry Flashman, spent the Second World War as a British foot soldier in Burma, an experience he describes delightfully in his book Quartered Safe Out Here. At the end of the war he applied for officer training, and much to his surprise spent the years after the war as a lieutenant in a highland regiment, first in North Africa and later on in Great Britain.

Fraser later turned his post war experiences into three volumes of short stories, all told in the first person by one Lieutenant Dand MacNeill, of which this is the first. And they are an unbridled joy, delight, and wonderment--the sort of book I put off re-reading so that I'll savor it all the more later on. Also, the sort of book you end up reading half of aloud to whoever might be in earshot.

The present volume begins with MacNeill's examination for officer training, and continues with his introduction to life as an officer in a highland regiment. In it, there is much to be said about bagpipes, soccer (only, of course, they don't call it soccer), scotch whisky--

A digression. The senior officers in some regiments are (or were) a hard-drinking lot, and many lieutenants in such regiments felt they had to do the same to be accepted. In MacNiell's regiment, as in most highland regiments (so says Fraser), the subalterns drank either beer or orange juice--in highland regiments, the senior officers had no desire to see their fine single-malt scotch swilled by lieutenants with no appreciation for what they were drinking.

--scotch whisky, highland dancing, and personal cleanliness, or, rather, the lack of it displayed by Private MacAuslan, the dirtiest soldier in the world.

I should note that the Dand MacNeill stories completely lack the worldly, cynical edge of Fraser's Flashman books; if you've tried those and disliked them, don't let that put you off from enjoying these. If you can find them; I wanted to get a copy of this book as a Christmas present this year, until I found that it's a available used at Amazon starting at $58. Time to check the used bookstores!

Posted by Will Duquette at December 17, 2004 09:37 PM