Because this biography begins with an appealing glimpse of a young Swedish boy escaping his chores to try once again to deduce the secret of how geese fly, it reveals Burnett’s sympathies from its first page. Even when Burnett discloses how the young Ericsson’s preoccupations with his own thoughts, ideas, and activities rendered him oblivious to family griefs and problems, she excuses his seeming callousness on the grounds of his genius. Similarly, when Ericsson’s first engagement fails because his fiancée, wearying of the endless postponements, marries someone else, Burnett emphasizes that what Ericsson loves most truly is what only his work can provide: knowledge. Burnett does display some sympathy for nineteen-year-old Amelia Byam, who could scarcely have anticipated that the charming, brilliant, and eccentric man of thirty-three who courted her so assiduously would end up wedded to his work. Byam, already discouraged because she shared so little of her husband’s life, gave up completely on the marriage after accompanying him to the United States. Yet, while Byam returned to live out her life in England, Burnett stresses the fact that Ericsson continued to provide for her financially and to correspond with her regularly.
In an effort to make Ericsson and his genius, as well as his foibles, come alive for young readers, Burnett invents thoughts and conversations for Ericsson, his family, and various friends and associates, interspersed with actual excerpts from letters, telegrams, and recollections. This “aliveness” is leached away, however, in showers of Swedish names and...
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Burnett’s narrative attempts to make American history more accurate by documenting the contributions of a non-American to one of the most fateful events in that history: the Civil War. Without Ericsson’s numerous inventions, incredible stamina, and expertise, the Union could not have withstood the attacks of the Confederate ironclad, the Merrimac. Had the Union been unable to blockade Southern ports, the South might well have won the war, thus changing all of American history.
By showing the seamy side of wartime politicking and by exposing the graft and fraud that accompanied Union efforts to assemble a decent navy, Burnett revises the “heroes versus villains” portrait of the Civil War that taints so many biographical and autobiographical accounts. The only “us versus them” situation involves the military-industrial complex versus an honest and trusting inventor, an opposition extremely relevant to modern history, economics, and politics. Showing one actual genius continually frustrated by those less capable and less honorable than he is, Burnett emphasizes not only the injustice experienced by individuals but also the benefits denied to society by such politics.