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Book Report: An author asks, 'What if?' while we look at Victoria -- again

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I'm always fascinated by Harry Turtledove, whose publisher bills him as "The Master of Alternate History."

What's that you may ask?

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Alternate history has been around for a long time and it comes in many forms. Minnesota's wonderfully inventive Larry Millett does a fictional version by asking "What if?" What if, he asks, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson came to Minnesota when the Hinckley fire was raging? What would those intrepid Englishmen do?

We see more and more of this fictionalizing with folks writing in the manner of Jane Austen and other literary figures.

Harry Turtledove does a different spin by using actual history in such books as "Hitler's War." In his new novel, "The War That Came Early: East and West" (Del Ray Books, $27), he asks the following what if: What if British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had gone to Munich in 1938 and refused to sign the pact with Hitler that led Chamberlain to disgrace and the appellation "Great Appeaser?" What would have happened then?

Turtledove reminds us that Hitler always regretted that he couldn't get into the war sooner, that things might have gone better for the madman.

So in his new outing Turtledove imagines what might have happened had the war begun in 1938. Readers may find the results amazing as they read the stories of individuals caught up in one of the great struggles of history: Jewish families caught in the Holocaust, an American woman caught in Berlin and curiosities like the foot soldier who uses an anti-tank gun as a sniper's weapon.

*****

Just when you think you've read enough books about Queen Victoria, another one arrives. The new volume, "Becoming Queen Victoria," by Kate Williams (Ballantine Books, $30), proves irresistible, with Williams, author of an earlier fine book about Emma Hamilton, uncovering more data than we've been treated to before.

I've always read that her consort, Prince Albert, was a loyal and supportive husband. In Williams' version, he's just as hungry for power as Victoria's notorious mother, who forced her to sleep in Momma's bedroom, so she could keep an eye on the sad young girl.

And that's not all. I was fascinated with Williams' backstory, of her descriptions of Victoria's uncles and relatives, many who turned out to be stupid, bilious blackguards who were always in debt, always in bed with some countess and generally gave the Hanover family a bad name.

And there was also Princess Charlotte, who might have become queen had she not died in childbirth.

Against these plots and counterplots of the royal family, Williams creates a backdrop of the sorry state Britain was in because of the Enclosure Act which forced peasants off the land they had come to expect was available to them.

One of the most touching stories was the traffic in 7-year-old chimney sweeps, who had no choice but to go to work crawling up tiny smoke stacks, their masters urging them to hurry by lighting tufts of straw to make them hurry along and be more productive.

As soon as the kids gained weight (if they lived that long), they were turned away because they no longer fit in the chimneys.

Since I read that chapter, William Blake's poem "The Chimney Sweeper" gained new meaning:

A little black thing among the snow

Crying "weep, weep" in notes of woe!

Where are thy father and mother?

"They are both gone up to the church to pray

Because I was happy upon the heath,

And smil'd among the winter's snow;

They clothed me in the clothes of death

And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy, I dance and I sing

They think they have done me no injury,

And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,

Who make up a heaven of our misery."

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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