The Rising Sun
In 1999, the Scottish Parliament held its first session since 1707, when its leaders had signed the Act of Union with England, ceding their independence in the hope of relieving the country's economic hardships. Throughout the 20th century, Scottish nationalists had worked without success to convince their reluctant fellow citizens of their cause's righteousness. In 1995, however, their fortunes changed dramatically thanks to the success of the film Braveheart. The film was co-opted by the nationalist party, which cannily compared William Wallace's 13th-century struggle against the English to their own. Their nationalist fervor stoked by Mel Gibson's painted-blue face, Scots voted overwhelmingly for self-government in a 1997 referendum.
The Rising Sun is a more sobering historical fiction about Scotland, providing a necessary tonic by addressing the moral blindness often induced by nationalism. Based on historical events, first-time novelist Douglas Galbraith's impressive epic, at once magisterial and intimate, recreates the disastrous Darien Expedition of 1698, in which 2,000 Scottish settlers attempted to establish a colony in Panama. The venture's backers hoped that with a presence in the New World and control over the narrow isthmus dividing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Scotland would free itself from England's economic tyranny while enriching individual investors. Convincingly narrated by the expedition's quartermaster, Roderick Mackenzie, Galbraith's novel describes the formation of the Company of Scotland, the long journey to Panama, and the colonists' tragic misadventures in Central America. When the endeavor was finally abandoned, only 300 colonists returned to Scotland alive.
The Rising Sun is in all respects a triumph. Galbraith's judicious use of archaisms in Mackenzie's prose recalls the 17th century without ever being distracting or parodic. As a character, Mackenzie is both credible and thoroughly sympathetic. His account convincingly articulates the mix of emotions he feels over the course of the expedition: his desire for personal advancement, his naive faith in the Company's mission, his sense of wonder upon arriving in Panama's Darien region, and his bitter disillusionment. Galbraith's other characters are equally compelling: Mackenzie's experienced and antagonistic assistant, Mr. Shipp; the slightly daft Rev. Mackay, who hopes to prove his theory that the Native Americans descended from ancient Scots; and the cheerfully morbid Dr. Munro. Alternating between his reportage of the voyage and his life before joining the Company, Mackenzie also describes in brilliant detail 17th-century Edinburgh.
Like the best historical fiction, The Rising Sun forcefully re-creates everyday life in a past age and makes it relevant to today. Galbraith's textured depictions of Edinburgh, seafaring life, and colonial Latin America are deftly balanced by a nuanced understanding of nationalism. The self-enrichment by the novel's "patriotic" Company officers through dubious contracts resembles nothing so much as the U.S. Congress's dishonest distribution of defense dollars. Roderick Mackenzie comes to realize that patriotism can conceal a number of sins, something we should all remember, whatever our nationality.