Authors who use multiple points of view risk losing their readers’ interest or confusing them with every shift. Only a few pull off such a perilous approach. In “Citizen Washington,” William Martin blows away the competition among “daredevil” authors. He uses not just three points of view (“The Girl on the Train” and “The Help”) or five (“The Poisonwood Bible”) but 16!
“Citizen Washington” (published by Warner Books, 1999) starts with the death of George Washington, America’s first president and one of its founding fathers. Rumors circulate that his wife, Martha, has burned his letters. What dark secrets did the great American hero keep to warrant the destruction of his letters?
16 Points of View
Hesperus Draper, Washington’s contemporary and nemesis, pays his nephew, Christopher Draper, to investigate in the guise of writing a book. The novel consists of the recollections of 16 characters who knew Washington. Hesperus and Christopher plus three other characters are fictional. The remaining 11 characters are based on real people such as Martha Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and his wife, Abigail Adams.
Martin depicts a very human Washington, warts and all. As a young colonial officer fighting for the British, Washington makes a pest of himself by nagging about a royal commission and threatening to quit all the time. During the American Revolution, his military strategies fail numerous times, so much so that his men sees him as better at retreating than fighting.
Yet his courage and doggedness are undeniable. “‘Twas the bravest damn thing I’d ever seen, or the dumbest. But Washington himself carried the day,” says Hesperus, describing Washington chase the British off. Washington’s imposing physical presence and uncompromising leadership compel his untrained, untested, and starving soldiers to fight in the worst physical conditions.
The novel portrays him as a frustrated admirer (perhaps lover) of a married woman, Sally Fairfax. He marries Martha, a rich widow, as a pragmatic move, but comes to love her and her children from her first marriage. Although Washington is a serious protagonist, Martin’s sense of humor comes through.
Breaking the Rules
Any writer who has attended writing courses and workshops, or read writing books, will see that Martin has broken a couple of writing “rules” in this novel. First, most writing teachers suggest keeping the number of POVs to a manageable number. Second, most teachers advise against using dialects, accents, and unconventional spelling.
In this novel, Martin broke both rules. He not only uses 16 POVs, he also lets some of the characters speak in dialects. The author’s knack for creating a different voice for every character with a POV has left me dumbstruck. While he uses each POV to add pieces to the Washington jigsaw puzzle, he also weaves each individual story adeptly without diluting the focus.
I love this book, but it should have been published with a caveat: If you’re a rookie novelist, don’t try this at home!