Recently my husband and I took a road trip which consisted of close to 18 hours in the car. It’s not that our destination was so terribly far away but rather that we encountered horrible traffic and road construction. (What does one expect when Chicago is anywhere in the vicinity?) Before we left we stocked up on four or five audio books. We couldn’t possibly listen to all of them but we wanted lots of choices just in case a book or two didn’t grab our attention.
As it turned out we only listened to one book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss, published in 2012, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for Biography or Autobiography. Several years ago my son in law gave me the book for my birthday since he knew I had enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo so much. Unfortunately for me the book ended up on a shelf in a “to be read” pile that was never read. My husband read it though, from cover to cover, and thoroughly enjoyed it so when we were browsing the audio book shelves at the library prior to our trip he suggested we include it. And I am so glad we did.
It so captured our attention that we had no desire to listen to any other book. The story of General Alex Dumas, the father of Alexandre Dumas the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers was difficult to put down turn off! It tells the story of his climb from slavery to a general in Napoleon’s army. His mother was a Haitian slave and his father a French marquis. His story is remarkable on so many levels! The heights to which he arose in the late 18th century were unprecedented to say the least. It would be 200 years before another man of color, Colin Powell, rose to the rank of general in a Western nation.
Alex Dumas, the son of Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie was born in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in March, 1762. His mother, Marie Cessette was Antoine’s Black slave. She bore him 3 children and they lived together essentially as husband and wife until he decided to return to France. At that time he sold 2 of his children as well as Marie, but his favorite son, Alex, just 12 years old at the time, ended up in France with him. Antoine was a self centered rouge, in my not so humble opinion. How he fathered a son like Alex is amazing.
Usually the French Revolution conjures up in the mind visions of abuse and terror, murder and chaos. But I learned in this book that during the Revolutionary years France was the first country ever to outlaw slavery. Unfortunately, it didn’t last and when Napoleon came to power the people of color who fought for their country became outcasts or worse.
Dumas managed to avoid the guillotine several times during The Terror while he was fighting for the Revolution! There are glowing accounts of men wanting to serve under him and with him. He was fair and compassionate with civilians unlike so many others who took advantage of them, stealing, killing, raping, etc. His courage was remarkable in the face of great odds. He was outspoken and honest which often got him into trouble. Napoleon hated him long before he took power which didn’t help his situation.
He found himself in prison enduring horrendous treatment and when he was freed after several years he never fully recovered his strength. He was a great man of character, this forgotten hero of France.
Reiss is a wonderful story teller. The narrative reads like a novel. Historical anecdotes are sprinkled throughout and the reader gets a vivid sense of life during the French Revolutionary years, as well as a glimpse into the remarkable research Reiss did. He notes which passages and characters from The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers can be directly linked to the life of Alex Dumas.
Reiss’ regard and respect for Dumas is on every page. It took him the better part of a decade to research the story. Drawing on personal letters, military records, diaries, memoirs, newspaper cuttings, and battlefield reports he manages to sort through the mountains of paper to tell the life story of this great man. And what a story it is!
In case you haven’t figured it out by now I urge you to pick up a copy and enjoy. You will not be sorry!