Bookshelf: The Americans

The Americans
By Donald Honig
First Published in June 1961
Published by Popular Library
144 Pages

The Americans, a mid-season replacement that premiered on NBC in January of 1961, ran for just 17 episodes but nevertheless produced this tie-in novel. The series, set during the opening months of the Civil War, starred Darryl Hickman and Richard Davalos as brothers Ben and Jeff Canfield. In the premiere, as Virginia secedes and the Union arsenal Harpers Ferry is attacked, Jeff decides to stay and fight with the Confederacy while Ben flees the state to join the Union. Each week one of the brothers would be featured in stories involving spies, battles, weaponry and smuggling. Aside from the premiere episode I’m not sure if the brothers ever met.

Donald Honig’s The Americans is an original story based on the series that takes place shortly before and during the Battle of the Wilderness in early May of 1864. There are several references to the Battle of Chancellorsville, which was fought in late April/early May of 1863 in the same general area as the Battle of the Wilderness.

The novel opens from the point of view of Ben Canfield and the Union. Ben is ordered to take a small group of soldiers on a scouting mission to look for signs of Confederate troops. They come across a small town and while checking out the town’s general store Ben spots a young woman holding an amulet identical to one that used to belong to his mother. She had given it to Jeff and died shortly thereafter, meaning there was no way Jeff would let it go. He had to be in town, likely in the very store Ben was standing in.

Scan of the front cover of The Americans TV tie-in novel.
The Americans Front Cover – Copyright © 1961 Popular Library

In a flashback to the previous evening, Jeff heads to a fancy dance only for Union soldiers to interrupt the festivities. He rushes off to battle and then returns to the dance. The next day he visits a young woman in a nearby town whose parents run a general store. While showing her an amulet given to him by his mother, Union soldiers show up and he is forced to hide. The soldiers leave and Jeff is safe.

After this near encounter the brothers go off on their separate stories. Ben is captured by Confederate forces but is able to escape and make it back to his unit. Jeff is torn after a Union soldier is executed for killing a civilian in cold blood. He then gets into a fight with a superior officer who accuses him of stealing liquor (the two become friends after the real culprit is caught). Armies on both sides prepare to meet in the Wilderness, with older soldiers wary because they remember the Battle of Chancellorsville, which the Confederates won.

The Battle of the Wilderness gets underway. Both Jeff and Ben are heavily involved in the fighting. The Union forces push forward and are repulsed by the Confederates. But no one is winning. Wounded soldiers on both sides burn to death as fires spread throughout the woods. Jeff is hit in the head by a musket and knocked unconscious. He awakens and rejoins the battle. A day later, he comes across two soldiers who have a Union soldier trapped. He volunteers to take over. Little does he know that the soldier in question is his brother, Ben. Ben is forced to shoot Jeff but happily the wound is superficial.

The brothers have a brief reunion, swapping coffee and tobacco. When Ben moves to pick up his rifle, Jeff runs off. Ben fires a shot high over Jeff’s head, happy to know that for now his brother is alive. The two armies march away from the woods, the Battle of the Wilderness indecisive. The war would continue for another eleven months.

Scan of the back cover of The Americans TV tie-in novel.
The Americans Back Cover – Copyright © 1961 Popular Library

The Americans was a brief but enjoyable read. Having only seen one episode of The Americans I can’t say whether it captured the overall tone of the series. Certainly, by focusing on both brothers and actually having them met, rather than tell an entire story from the point of view of one of the brothers, the novel set itself apart from the series. More than most tie-in novels, which are by their very nature standalone works, The Americans is an excellent story that can be read without knowing anything at all about the television show it’s based on.

As an aside, according to a brief author’s biography Donald Honig, “a dedicated student of the Civil War,” was a former professional baseball player who had two of his short stories adapted for television by Alfred Hitchcock. The bibliography at his official website doesn’t include The Americans nor another novel, Walk Like a Man, mentioned in the author’s biography, but does list a few dozen books about baseball.


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