I had the opportunity to finally watch Hamilton in London a few days ago, and have been preparing for this by devouring books about the man himself, the musical based on his life, and the era in which he lived. Here’s a look at the different books I have read recently, covering a mixture of fiction, non-fiction, and somewhere in-between.
Rebels: A Well-Regulated Militia and These Free and Independent States by Brian Wood
Brian Woods’ Rebels comics bring some lesser-known parts of US history to life by focusing on stories taking place away from the Founding Fathers. Volume one, A Well-Regulated Militia, focuses on the Green Mountain Boys, a militia organization headed by Ethan Allen based in the area that would later become Vermont. The first six chapters of the book follow 17-year-old Seth Abbot, one of the Green Mountain Boys, and his wife Mercy. We see how Seth’s devotion to the cause of liberty put his marriage in jeopardy and follow him from his initial two-year enlistment to one that lasts much longer as the war continues to rage.
The remaining four chapters are short stories set during the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. My favorite by far was “Goodwife, Follower, Patriot, Republican,” which introduced camp follower and soldier’s wife Sarah Hull. Sarah ends up taking her husband’s place during a vicious battle when he is significantly injured, but the story is narrated by her husband in a deathbed letter that doesn’t have the outcome he hoped for. The other short stories include one following an enlisted British soldier and another about a woman imprisoned for publishing anti-British posters, and together they help paint a picture of what life was like for ordinary people during the war.
These Free and Independent States is set a few decades later, during the War of 1812 – what the author describes as the “troubled adolescence” of the United States. This second volume, which I actually enjoyed even more than the first, follows Seth and Mercy’s son John, a young man with incredible knowledge of ships and ship-building and an equal lack of understanding about social etiquette that suggests what we would now recognize as Asperger’s syndrome. Thankfully, John has parents and employers who understand his unique nature and encourage him not to deny it, and rather to use it to the advantage of both himself and his fledgling nation. The three short stories rounding out this book include a young George Washington, sunken gold near Brooklyn, and a return to the Green Mountain Boys of book one.
I loved these graphic novels, which really helped me paint a picture of life in the early United States. Growing up in England, we learned almost nothing about this period of history, but these books brought the period to life. I would recommend them to anyone interested in US history, war stories, and unique comic storytelling.
Alex and Eliza Series by Melissa de la Cruz
Alex and Eliza is a two-book (so far) mini-series based on Alexander Hamilton’s relationship with Elizabeth Schuyler. The books are based vaguely on real events and the first, simply titled Alex and Eliza, covers the period from their first meeting until their marriage.
Little is known about Hamilton and Eliza’s real relationship due to many of their letters being burned and so this book plays fast and loose with their history, only sticking with a few basic facts such as their courtship in Morristown, where Alex was stationed and Eliza was staying with her aunt and uncle. Eliza is portrayed as an Elizabeth Bennet type character – the sensible one compared with her sisters Angelica and Peggy. At a ball in the opening chapters, she refuses to wear an expensive, fancy gown, concerned about the message this would send when soldiers were struggling to stay clothed.
In the second half of the book, however, the author appears to dispense with the known history entirely, introducing both an engagement between Eliza and Henry Livingston and an assault never known to have happened. The latter of these, in particular, seems to have been written purely to allow Alexander to dash in and play the hero, saving Eliza. Not only did this feel wildly out of place, but given that Henry is very likely based on the real Henry Brockholst Livingston, fictionalizing a sexual assault between two real people feels at best icky, and at worst downright defamatory. The scene’s only saving grace was that it did allow for a truly fabulous response from Eliza’s aunt Gertrude in a later chapter.
Book two, Love and War, picks up soon after the first and is split into two parts. Part one is set around the Battle of Yorktown and splits up the newly married couple, with Alex facing the British one last time and Eliza staying at home with her mother and siblings. The second half, after an odd intermission that reads like an excerpt from a history essay, moves the action to New York City, where Alex and Eliza have finally set up their own home on Wall Street – right next door to Aaron Burr and his new wife Theodosia. Alex is attempting to set up a new law practice but finds himself up against many rivals, while Eliza finds herself feeling neglected and lost in the big city.
These books read like real-person fanfic and, unfortunately, are littered with the worst kind of flowery fanfic writing – at one point Alex refers to his wife as “his dear chestnut-tressed maid.” If you’re looking for a light and fluffy romance free from the confines of historical accuracy then you will love them, but for anyone looking for writing with more substance than a three-page scene in which the inimitable Schulyer sisters parade in front of Alexander while he critiques their outfits, I’d advise looking elsewhere.
Hamilton: The Revolution by Jeremy McCarter and Lin-Manuel Miranda
If there’s one book that every Hamilton fan has to read, it’s Hamilton: The Revolution, or, to give it its full title, Hamilton: The Revolution, Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical, With a True Account of Its Creation, and Concise Remarks on Hip-Hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America. Written by Jeremy McCarter (former cultural critic for New York magazine, Pulitzer Prize for drama judge, and artistic staff member of the Public Theatre) with liberal notes from show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: The Revolution tracks both the evolution of the show and the historic events that gave rise to it.
The book works its way through the musical, all 47 songs of it (one scene does not appear on the official cast album) one by one, alternating between prose essays on a variety of subjects, and song lyrics annotated by Miranda. In the essays, we are introduced to the cast and crew and the difficulties in creating something as ground-breaking as Hamilton as part of a detailed look back at how the show came to be, from Miranda’s decision to take Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton on vacation with him (a little light reading) to opening night on Broadway. Miranda’s notes are more personal, noting everything from little musical throwbacks and lyrics borrowed from other sources to in-jokes that only a select few would ever pick up on.
I was especially interested in reading about how Hamilton traces its roots to a variety of musical styles I admit total ignorance about. My musical background is more opera than R&B, Eminem’s debut album being my sole foray into hip-hop and rap, so while I had easily picked up things like Washington’s Pirates of Penzance reference in “Right Hand Man,” call outs to DMX, Grandmaster Flash, and Mobb Deep sailed right over my head and needed to be pointed out in print. Reading Miranda’s notes helped me gain a whole new level of appreciation for an album of songs I knew almost by heart.
No matter your background, or how well you think you know Hamilton already, I guarantee that Hamilton: The Revolution will teach you something new about both the man himself and the musical he would one day inspire and I found it particularly valuable to have read shortly before seeing the show on stage.
Honorable Mention: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
I will preface this by stating that I haven’t (yet) read Chernow’s 832-page epic biography of Alexander Hamilton, but I wanted to include it here regardless. Chernow’s book provided the initial inspiration for the Hamilton musical, and it is to the immense credit of Lin-Manuel Miranda that he was able to read this heavy, fact-laden tome and see a vision of what it could become. Chernow, in fact, went on to become a supervisor to the play, offering insight to the storytelling as it progressed through the years.
Chernow’s book isn’t for everyone and, given its length, even seasoned readers will find that it takes some time to get through it (the Audible audiobook edition clocks in at a whopping 35 hours and 58 minutes), but for anyone wanting real insight into the life of Alexander Hamilton, there really is no better source.
Disclosure: Review copies were provided for Rebels and the Alex & Eliza series.