When we talk of the events that led up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and beyond, we usually discuss the major figures in this significant moment in American history, such as John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. History is generally presented as a series of chronological events, often in a purely factual and dry fashion.
Ned Ryun’s new book, The Adversaries: A story of Boston and Bunker Hill, takes a slightly different approach. The book focuses on a less well-known man, Dr. Joseph Warren, who played an integral part in the creation of the United States and who valiantly gave his life for the cause he wholeheartedly believed in. The choice to write about this figure already distinguished Ryun’s project from others, but it’s not only that which makes the book unique.
Ryun eschews the beaten path in writing about history, and instead, he delves into the events with a more creative approach; one Ryun calls “faction.” Although he sticks to actual events and maintains their chronology, Ryun nevertheless takes some creative liberties in bringing each of the characters to life. “ . . . This was never intended to be a purely historical work,” writes Ryun. “I want the men and women of that era to come to life . . . every character in this book lives; there are no composite characters to help move the story along in ways history does not reflect.”
Ryun is absolutely correct in this—every person in his book is alive and embodied. They are not merely two-dimensional people, who are used as vessels to illuminate the events in history. Rather, it is the other way around. While historical and immovable facts are greatly important (and Ryun does not ignore any of it!), he manages to use history in order to illuminate the interior lives of men and women who had a foundational role in the creation of America.
The story opens with a prologue that takes us into the battle Breed’s Hill in 1775. “Newly appointed Major General of the colonial army” Joseph Warren was leading his men into battle against the British officers. A doctor, who for all intents and purposes, didn’t have to be on the battlefield, and perhaps had no real need for being involved in the cause itself, Warren exhibited such verve and commitment. Immediately, we see his courage: “He didn’t have to be here; he’d chosen to be here over the protests of friends who insisted he was too important to the cause to be another musket on the redoubt.”
For all those men who fought for American independence, including Warren, the fight was taken very seriously. Warren, as many of them were, was guided by faith and reason, which showed him the exit from tyranny. But, as we see in the opening of The Adversaries, there was a price to pay for that liberty to be obtained. There was the issue of organizing, agreements, disagreements, smuggling weapons, even spying and informing, but reason prevailed.
Passion for truth and liberty was also the driving force for Warren. In one of the meetings, he makes a plea to others: “At what point will we say enough? No more? Are we just going to watch every one of our rights disappear without actually fighting for them? We know this isn’t about stamps, or about tea, or taxes: this is about being free. We have always governed ourselves and we always mean to, but Parliament and the King’s ministers have decided we should not.”
The reader will find himself completely taken by the seemingly unimportant encounters in the book. But what Ryun shows us is that every small event is an integral piece of the course of these very human events. Ryun’s words open up an entirely different dimension to Warren, as well as others who were both major and minor players in this fight for freedom. In many ways, for Ryun, there are no “major” or “minor” players. Naturally, there was a hierarchy to the roles founding fathers had, but without the unity of the people standing against King’s tyranny, there would be no United States of America.
By many, Warren was seen as a troublemaker, a rebel, even a traitor. In one of the particularly interesting scenes at a ball, Warren is accosted and attacked by Lord Rawdon. Warren makes polite conversation, but Rawdon strikes back: “I’m not here to discuss the ball but to tell you that you and your damned resolves can go to hell.” Warren, calm and collected, informs Rawdon that the impetus for his actions is not some personal hatred of King George III, but that loyalty cannot extend to someone who does not think that freedom and rights are of any significance to the inhabitants of the colonies.
Ryun’s book often reads like a spy novel or a thriller (which were also components to this fight), but what makes it truly palpable is emotion. There are many poignant moments we witness in Warren’s life. One such moment is a particularly visceral and meaningful encounter between Warren and John and Abigail Adams.
John and Abigail share a meal with Warren, and we see people united not only in the cause of freedom, but friends who care about honor and each other. Ryun’s words take on a spiritual dimension in describing this encounter: “Outside the snow had started falling again as the candlelight from the windows spilled out, pushing the darkness back. As he [Warren] sipped his glass of wine, he looked at the smiling faces of the Adams children, nodding at Abigail and Adams reached out and gripped Warren’s hand. ‘I’m glad you are here,’ he said.”
What drives Ryun’s book is not a simple desire to show the role of Dr. Joseph Warren in the Revolution, or a sense that he should not be forgotten, or a wish to illuminate the events that created America. Although all of these elements are part of his book, it seems what’s central to this book is the very idea of community, unity, and encounter between people.
Without faith, respect for each other (even despite some disagreements), and courage, none of what brought America into being would have been possible to imagine, let alone enact. Warren, like many others, showed that his main loyalty was to God and the community that surrounded him. The actions exhibited by Warren are a good reminder that nothing good can happen without courage and, beyond that, nothing good can be maintained without gratitude. These eternal lessons ring as true today as they did in America’s first Revolution.