Reviewed by Alex Binkley
Historical fiction is a literary genre that provides the writer with tremendous scope and Ottawa-author Robert Barclay doesn’t waste that potential with his newest novel, Jacob the Trumpeter.
The story is set in Germany in the middle of the 17th Century during the 30 Years' War ostensibly between Roman Catholic and breakaway Protestant states. That religious divide is present throughout the tale of Jacob Hintze, the farm boy who has many benefactors as he turns his musical knack as a kid into a career as a military and court trumpeter, courier and spy for his Duke and military commanders. Jacob's career takes him to London, Paris, Denmark and many other parts of Europe.
After Jacob leaves home, his family is wiped out by a band of renegade soldiers, upon whom he exacts a gruesome revenge. Then in a strange twist of events, he meets Elisabeth, the love of his life and mother of his six children, including one who shares Jacob’s musical bent. The novel describes the frightening impact of smallpox and the plague that Jacob and Elisabeth have to contend with as these diseases decimate the population.
In Jacob's time, Germany was a collection of independent states that faced threats on land and sea from Sweden, Denmark, Italy and elsewhere.
Music helped shape Jacob’s world as it does ours. And Barclay provides us with insights into the relatively glamorous life of military trumpeters, who signaled not only manœuvres to troops on the battlefield but also performed at many court functions, and were always under pressure to master new works.
The story also paints a graphic picture of the mayhem and dislocation that war brings to a civilian population and the many men conscripted to fight with little training or motivation. Even after peace is finally secured, the devastation to cities and rural communities lingers, sowing the seeds of resentment and desperation that will trigger future conflicts.
Barclay is an accomplished maker of historic horns and trumpets and provides the readers with intriguing insights into the evolution of the art of making musical instruments. The footnotes to the story, collected at the end, are also well worth the read, not just for understanding the author’s efforts to keep the story tied to the history of the time but also for some of his snide editorial comments.