I truly enjoyed this latest installment in my nonfiction audiobook series. First of all, The Great Upheaval (Harper Collins, 2007) is LONG (the print version is nearly 700 pages), which means that I got my fill of juicy historical details and side-stories about larger-than-life characters. Second, it presents the American Revolution in a global context, setting it side-by-side with the tumultuous reign of Catherine the Great in Russia and the bloody French Revolution. And third, Winik goes far beyond the mere recitation of facts- he imagines, for instance, what was going through Marie Antoinette's mind as she awaited her execution, and analyzes Catherine's motives during her slide toward despotism.
In fact, Winik often goes a bit too far in his quest to tell the "whole story."
I mean, there I am, listening to my audiobook while washing the dishes before going to bed. The house is quiet, I'm winding down, and BAM! there's good ol' Jay inundating me with a far-too-detailed description of what the French mob liked to do with the heads of its victims. The lovely mob enjoyed, for instance, chopping a mean, bad aristocrat to pieces with an ax or whatever, and then cutting off the dude or lady's head, dressing the head's hair with a wig and fixing up the face, and then sticking the head on a pike, etc. etc. etc. I must admit, that by that point I was about to throw up on those nice, sparkling dishes of mine. It wasn't just the gruesome details- it was the enormity of the horror and chaos that gripped France, my spiritual homeland, at the end of the 18th century. It got me thinking all over again about genocide and war throughout the ages and around the world. And I knew that I would be having nightmares from that damn book.
BUT, the next night, Winik surprised me with his gentle, sympathetic account of Louis XVI and his family as they figured out what the new leaders of France meant to do with them. Further, his patient, methodical discussion of George Washington's rise from humble origins to the President of the United States reminded me that the founders weren't the stiff-looking, grim men we see in paintings but complex human beings.
Winik's decision to bounce around between America, France, and Russia with each chapter break was a good one. Because of it, we see more clearly how France's Revolution shook up the usually calm Catherine and threw the Americans into confusion over whether or not to support their past ally. We can better compare Catherine's diminishing benevolence with Robespierre's growing paranoia and Washington's decision to crack down on the men behind the Whiskey Rebellion. I DO love when historians get all juxtapositional with their subjects.