The Northwest Passage, by Kenneth Roberts

Why this book:  I recall reading the book when I was about 15 or 16 years old and it made quite an impression on me. I wanted to return to it and see what I think of it 40+ years later.

My Impressions:  This is the story of pre-revolutionary America, built around the life and career of Major Robert Rogers, a historical figure who is famous as the leader of Roger’s Rangers in the French and Indian War.  Rogers’  Rules of Ranging  are still published and distributed among US infantry men.  Rogers’ Rangers are the pro-genitors and spiritual forefathers of today’s Army Rangers.  I recently learned that William O. Darby, the father of today’s US Army Rangers tells in his autobiography how Gen George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army during WWII created and named the US Army Rangers for these same Rogers’ Rangers.   The Northwest Passage,  published in 1938, was immensely popular in America at the time and was followed in 1940 by a movie of the same name , starring Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers, and Robert Young as Langdon Towne, the protagonist who tells the story.   It is not too big a leap to assume that the book  and the movie may be largely responsible for inspiring the formation of the US Army Rangers.

The story is epic – about 630 pages covering about 15 years from the French and Indian Wars to the beginning of the Revolutionary War.  It is the story of the rise and fall of Robert Rogers as seen through the eyes of a young Langdon Towne, and since it covers approximately a decade and a half, the story is told in several phases.   Only the first part of the novel deals with Rogers’ Rangers and their exploits in the French and Indian War – the book continues well beyond that, concerning itself with other themes in the ‘life and times’ of Robert Rogers, and his fixation on winning glory by finding the ‘Northwest Passage’ to the Pacific Ocean.  The novel  includes stories that reflect on the relations between the provincials (colonials) in the British Army and regular British Army soldiers during the French and Indian War, the origins, tactics and exploits of Roger’s Rangers in that War, tensions between colonists and British officials in pre-revolutionary War America,  the full spectrum of life in London prior to and during the American Revolution,  and descriptions of various tribes of American Indians and their relationships to  Europeans in the North and Northeast, prior to the great expansion westward.

The story teller, Langdon Towne is a resourceful , resilient, and reserved young artist, who idolizes Robert Rogers, until near the end of the story, when Rogers’ behavior finally alienates the young idealist, and they become estranged.   I found the protagonist intelligent and appealing, but a bit too analytical and detached for my taste  – not a lot of testosterone, emotion, or passion.   Langdon Towne’s cautious and dispassionate idealism is in direct contrast to Robert Rogers, the central figure of the book.  Rogers is a flawed, but fascinating larger-than-life character, who reminds me in many ways of Ernest Schackleton.  Shackleton and Rogers were both men of enormous energy, charisma, passion, and ambition.  They were both great and confident leaders, nearly indomitable in physical adversity, but something of  ne’er do wells in civilized society.  Like Schackleton, Rogers was always on the make for a financial sponsor to support his grandious ambitions, and was a great salesman of himself and his plans.  But he was always in debt,  was unconstrained by much of the morality of civilized society, or only conformed to it when it served his immediate needs, and was uninterested in observing the conventions of married or family life.  Rogers also had a serious alcohol problem; Schackleton did not.

The Northwest Passage is a great novel covering a broad swath of the tapestry of life in pre-Revolutionary war America; it is very readable and an enjoyable story.  I checked Wikipedia to learn that the book accurately conveys the essential outlines of Rogers’ life.  A special edition (which I did not have) actually includes the transcripts of Rogers’ court-martial by the British.

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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