An unusual and refreshingly human look at famous historical figures, Johnny One-Eye is an engrossing and readable novel. With the action concentrated largely in Manhattan, New York City, Jerome Charyn blends empirical evidence with interesting and entertaining fictional characters that fit believably into the customs and events of the time period.
The book opens with the narrator and primary character, John Stocking, also known as Johnny One-Eye, about to be hanged for attempting to poison General George Washington’s soup. Intelligent and wily, seventeen-year-old Johnny believes he has outsmarted his captors. Though the “poison” he put in the general’s soup was harmless, Johnny finds himself in a dreary dungeon of a jail nonetheless. Johnny is in fact a double agent, spying for both the British and the Americans during the early days of the Revolutionary War. He came by his nickname after losing an eye in battle under the command of American General Benedict Arnold. Hired as Arnold’s secretary, Johnny was only briefly embattled before becoming wounded.
Johnny does not know who his father is; his mother, Gertrude Jennings, is the proprietress of a brothel named Holy Ground because of its proximity to a nearby Catholic church. Her workingwomen are thus referred to irreverently as “nuns.” In addition to being a brothel, Holy Ground is a favorite meeting place for high-ranking American and British combatants, not least of which is General Washington, commander in chief of the rebels, and General William Howe, commander of the British forces. Washington is married to wealthy Martha Custis, who is home at Mt. Vernon, their famous Virginia plantation. A farmer and the highest-ranking American soldier, Washington is said to have come to Holy Ground merely to play cards. In fact, he has been in love with Gertrude since their meeting years earlier in a roadside tavern where she was a waitress. Becoming aware of the previous relationship between his mother and Washington, Johnny convinces himself that the general is his father; his mother neither denies nor confirms the veracity of her son’s wishful deduction.
In contrast to the wide and varied spectrum of Washington’s historical legacy, ranging from hyperbolic praise for mythical qualities to debunking as emotionally weak and militarily bumbling, author Charyn portrays the general as kind, equitable, and humble, although he is strong and ruthless in battle. In short, he is an extraordinary human being who rose to the momentous challenge of fighting a revolution for his country and his fellow citizens.
The main protagonist of the book, John Stocking (Johnny One-Eye) is a teenager advanced beyond his years by the remarkable era and circumstances in which he lives. Raised in a brothel with a less-than-attentive mother, surrounded by prostitutes and their powerful clients amid the uproar of rebellion, Johnny is boyish and mature at the same time. In addition to his perilous and exciting existence as a double agent, Johnny’s life is complicated by his desperate love for Clara, the most popular and elusive of the prostitutes at Holy Ground.
Fleeing her homeland and sexually abusive stepfather in Dominica, Clara was taken in as a homeless waif by Gertrude to be pampered at Holy Ground. An Octoroon (mixed race) with dark skin, blond locks, and piercing green eyes, Clara is at once enigmatic and profoundly practical. She becomes an obsession for love-struck, endlessly hopeful, and loyal Johnny.
Johnny occupies a precarious position among the intrigues and destruction of personal lives brought about by the war. Himself a “changeling,” an ostensibly illegitimate boy with shifting loyalties, he received an education at King’s College, where his tuition was paid by the British monarchy. His heart, though, leads him toward the cause of the American rebels, especially since he believes that General Washington is his father. At home in Holy Ground, Johnny is in close contact with...
(The entire section is 1642 words.)