The Sage of Waterloo: A Tale, by Leona Francombe – Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

518uaB1pVpL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_The Sage of Waterloo: A Tale, by Leona Francombe
NYC, W. W. Norton & Co., June 2015, hardcover $22.95 (x + 224 pages), Kindle $11.99.

This leisurely novel will tell you more than you want to know about the famous Battle of Waterloo of June 17, 1815. To the rabbits who live there today, it’s the only exciting thing that ever happened there. They never tire of hearing about it, in detail. William, the narrator, is one of those rabbits.

“Waterloo is where I was born, and where I spent the first three years of my life. Well, technically it wasn’t Waterloo itself but the ancient Brabant farm of Hougoumont, one of the iconic battle sites situated in the fields a few kilometers farther up the Chaussée de Waterloo. In 1815, this long, forested avenue funneled weary streams of humanity back and forth between the battlefield and the city – between destiny and deliverance.” (p. 5)

This may be the last generation that Hougoumont knows as a farm. William describes its decline from a working farm to a forgotten relic. “I was happy at Hougoumont. The last farmer to live there was not like the aristocrats who had once owned the chateau (there was no more chateau – the French had shelled it). He raised cattle, and seemed far less interested in rabbit and pigeon dishes than his predecessors. He was, thank heavens, a frozen–food sort of man, and thus our existence was blissfully irrelevant.” (p. 7) The rural village of Waterloo has expanded into a modern small city, and the old farm with its rabbit hutches and dovecotes will soon be torn down.

“I am no longer young. I’ll be eleven in a few months, which not only requires math well beyond my skills to calculate in human years, but also obliges me to press on with my storytelling. Those of you who are already experiencing the adventure of aging may have discovered that this part of the journey does not only entail unexpected dips and fissures in the road, aches in the limbs, problems reaching those hard-to-clean areas (Old Lavender gave them up early on) and so forth.” (pgs. 12-13). William describes his hutchmates in detail. “Jonas, a distant cousin, was a rash, handsome buck infamous for his preening, scheming, and disreputable tail-chasing.” (p. 13) “Boomerang, a slightly crazed uncle, had the obscure habit of throwing himself sideways against the barrier, bouncing off at ever-more-interesting angles.” (p. 14) “Caillou was the runt (his name, fittingly, meant ‘pebble’).” (ibid.) And others. “Most of us followed the general rules that defined the Hollow Way. Yield. Bump ahead. No left turn. That sort of thing. It was a predictable sort of life, vigorously stamped with the colony’s imprimatur: milling, eating, nudging, nipping, dozing … milling, eating, nudging, nip …You get the idea.” (p. 16)

The doyen of the hutch is Old Lavender, their ancient grandmother. “No one could say how long Old Lavender had lived in the colony. She was grandmother to at least ten generations, and while other relatives disappeared over the years at the farmer’s whims, or those of Moon, the invisible arbiter of our kind, she had always been permitted to stay. No one dared to cross her. She was just too big, for one thing. And of course, there was that smell …” (p. 2) And Old Lavender likes to tell about the Battle of Waterloo.

“After a period of reflection – several days or so – Old Lavender would lecture to the enclosure at large. The place was crowded: we were unable to eat, groom, fornicate or daydream more than about a foot away from someone else, so she had a decent captive audience. Not that we objected. She mined her Waterloo passion for treasures that were exclusively ours for the taking.” (p. 29)

Francombe tries to keep it interesting. Parts of the story are straight narration. Parts are in the form of a quiz.

“Mornings were reserved for pop quizzes: ‘What did Wellington have for breakfast?’ (Hot, sweet tea and toast. Napoleon, by the way, took his breakfast on silver plate.) ‘Why was Napoleon such a poor rider?’ (He slid around on the saddle too much, wearing holes in his breeches.) ‘How long was Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher pinned under his dead horse?’ (Even longer than it takes to pronounce his name properly.) ‘What did they use to revive him?’ (Blücher, not the horse: gin and garlic.)” (p. 35)

William loses himself in visions of himself as the heroic cast.

“I hardly knew which one to choose from. For guaranteed escape, Wellington was always a good bet, so I would track him eagerly as he rode about all day in his plain blue frock coat and bicorne hat, amazed at how such a mythmaker could subsist on just hot tea and toast. Then I would leave the Duke to his reconnoitering for a while and practice pronouncing Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. I never really mastered it, despite all the hours spent trying, thereby gaining a much greater appreciation of the old Prussian general’s predicament. (He was seventy-three at the time.) When these activities paled, I imagined myself boldly escaping from the Hougoumont barn during the fiercest of the fighting, leaping across the chateau garden through a blizzard of bullets, the finger of providence firmly upon me.” (p. 36)

This sort of thing goes on throughout the book. It is not all fleshed-out history, though. It is mixed with William’s explorations outside the Hougoumont rabbit hutch. He is dumbfounded to discover that a blackbird knows as much about the Battle of Waterloo as his grandmother does. When Old Lavender disappears, William and Arthur, the blackbird, search for her. What they find relates not only to her but to William’s own history.

The Sage of Waterloo (cover by the Strick&Williams art agency; a montage from Getty Images) is clever. It transcends the story of the Battle of Waterloo to tell its own original story. But if you are not interested in the Battle of Waterloo itself, there may not be enough here to hold your interest.

Fred Patten