Napoleon’s Big Mistake

Russian Snows: Coming of Age in Napoleon’s Army (2011), Scott Armstrong, 161 pp.

My experience with this book is special, so you have to bear with me as I shamelessly promote it. Armstrong and I belong to an online writing group, formed in 2010 as we vied against each other in the ABNA quarterfinals. Two of our group members made it to the semis, but Armstrong didn’t, so he decided to self-publish.

I followed his progress from a 120K word count down to below 60K. What a task to set oneself! I can feel the pain of cutting the results of more than 50% of one’s toil. Ouch!

But what remains is a lovely evocation of early 1800s France and Napoleon’s army as it made its disastrous march into and out of Russia during a terrible winter. The story is told from the viewpoint of 14-year-old Henri, who joins the French army with his older brother. They dream of glory, of winning tremendous victories for their country, of comaraderie and good deeds. We already know the horrible outcome, because in the prologue a much older Henri tells his grandchildren that of more than half a million soldiers who began the eastbound march, only 20,000 returned. What we don’t know is how Henri survived.


Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow, Adolph Northen

Armstrong gives us the soldiers’ grueling experiences on a march over what seems like (and perhaps is) thousands of miles. Military tactics, battle scenes, day-to-day needs: all come to us through Henri’s eyes. Armstrong’s hand-drawn small-scale map of Napoleon’s invasion and retreat (frontispiece) shows Poland and western Russia. I hope Armstrong adds a large-scale map of Europe to future editions, for greater geographical context.

Russian Snows provides a strong introduction to an important historical era. Combined with Laurie Halse Anderson’s series on the American Revolution (Chains and Forge), this could get some reluctant boys interested in reading. Historical fiction counterbalances the fantasy, paranormal and urban fiction many young readers are drawn to — I’m not denigrating fantasy, paranormals, and urban fiction, but kids need to travel into the past as well as into other worlds. Armstrong makes an excellent tour guide.

Know a young person you’d like to hook into history? You can purchase a copy of Russian Snows from Armstrong’s website.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
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