Tag Archives: hero

(Re)Discoveries: Seven Days in May

Did You Bet on the Preakness?

Triple Crown season always reminds me of Seven Days in May, the political thriller by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. Well, I should confess, it has always reminded me of the *movie* Seven Days in May. Because—shame on me—I had never actually read the book. Last week I decided it was time to finally give it a try.

Unfortunately, there is no way to talk about the book without giving away the central premise, but since the hero figures it out by the end of chapter two, it’s not much of a spoiler: Seven Days in May is about a military coup against the President by members of the American military. It’s set in an imaginary near future (a decade after the publication date), so technically that also makes it science fiction (or if you prefer, speculative fiction).

Alternate History

Chep Morrison and some other guy in the Oval Office, June 13, 1961

In the Oval Office, 1961

Seven Days in May is definitely a period piece. What makes it so fascinating is which period that happens to be. I was happily reading away when I stumbled over a casual reference to Mrs. Kennedy redecorating a room in the White House. Something about it made me pause and check the book’s publication date—1962. That gave me chills. John F. Kennedy was alive when this book was written. The future stretched out in front of him, in front of the whole country, limitless and unmarred, full of possibilities that those of us living in the aftermath of his assassination can’t even imagine.

Reading Seven Days in May is part time travel, part journey to a parallel universe. It gives a fascinating glimpse of old Washington. This is a very small world where even senators drive themselves around and answer their own phones. Wealthy lobbyists host cookouts in their back yards attended by women in spike heels, and men drinking gin and tonics. Everybody smokes. Fast women drink martinis and tempt married men to stray, but only in New York City.


We may not have learned to love the bomb, but we’ve sure stopped worrying.

However, the real sense of dislocation comes from the constant presence throughout the story of the threat of nuclear war with Russia. The coup is precipitated by a disarmament treaty that the conspirators fear will leave America at Russia’s mercy. Although today the hands of the Doomsday Clock are much closer to midnight than they were when this book was written, we have lost the sense of imminent danger that the novel portrays. To really understand the characters and their actions, we need to appreciate that in the world of the story, what is at stake is not just the existence of the United States as a constitutional democracy, but the very fate of the human race.

Rated PG

Another sign of the times is the dearth of violence in the story. The stakes are as high as could possibly be imagined, and the villains are threatening to overthrow the rule of law through military force, but there is no overt threat to the President’s life, or anyone else’s. The only guns in evidence are sentry rifles (never fired), and interpersonal violence is limited to a few fisticuffs. A modern thriller would doubtless have a corpse in the first chapter, and the main character would be fleeing for his or her life before the story was halfway through. In Seven Days in May there’s a lot of sneaking around in the dark and fast driving, but no sense that anyone is in actual danger. When something bad does happen to someone (that’s a tease, not a spoiler), it comes as a real shock.

A Good Read

Aside from nostalgia, is this book worth reading? Definitely. It’s well plotted (though not as exciting as the movie—which is not the criticism it might seem: the movie was scripted by Rod Serling!) and the characters are nuanced, particularly the “good guys” (most of whom are guys—the portrayal of women is very much of its time1), and the main villain is acting (mostly) in what he believes to be the best interests of the country.

One of the story’s major themes is the role of the military in American society, and the other is duty. What does it mean to be a good soldier, and what do you do when you have to choose between following orders and doing what is right? What does it mean to do one’s duty—as a government official, as a member of the military, as a citizen? “Democracy” and “the Constitution” are fine ideals, but if it came down to it, what would you be willing to risk for your country?

Bottom lineSeven Days in May 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)  And be sure to see the movie.

So, what does any of that have to do with the Preakness?

[Yes, this is a spoiler, but not a major one.] Operation Preakness is the code name used by the conspirators, who send messages to place a bet on the race as the signal that they are ready to strike. When one military commander refuses to make the measly ten dollar bet, the hero realizes something strange is going on. So betting—or rather, refusing to bet—on the Preakness is the key to uncovering the conspiracy.


I Still Want to Be Jim Hawkins

When I was 10 or so and finally read Treasure Island (having previously been introduced to the story through Classic Comics), I distinctly remember one day walking home from school and suddenly realizing I wished I were a boy—not because I actually wanted to be a boy (ew), but because only boys have adventures.

Who Gets to Be a Hero?

The obvious exception is Lucy Pevensie, of course, but somehow she didn’t count—maybe because the whole glorious Narnia thing was completely out of reach. In my heart of hearts I knew that, although it was years before I stopped feeling a little twinge of hope opening a closet.

At that point, my 10- or 11-year-old self had read a respectable pile of books, and although a few had heroines or girl sidekicks, somehow the best ones, like Kidnapped and Guns in the Heather and The Three Investigators, all seemed to feature boys—boys doing fun and amazing things, escaping from bad guys and solving mysteries and foiling nefarious plots.

The Best Adventure of Them All

I’ve always been a romantic—in the classic sense of imagining that life could really be exciting and full of derring-do. Robin Hood, D’Artagnan, Tarzan, David Balfour. But best of all was Jim Hawkins. Treasure Island enthralled me, enraptured me, filled me with that delicious combination of “you are there” excitement and poignant “if only I could” longing that I still feel when I read a really good book.

Rereading Treasure Island for the first time in about 20 years, I’m struck with how much better it is even than I remember. Having written my own pirate romance (in the modern sense), I’m bowled over by Stevenson’s masterful plot construction, vivid descriptions, lively dialogue replete with sea lingo and piratical slang, and his subtle characterizations (Silver in particular, and of course Jim himself).

But that’s only when I accidentally slip out of the narrative for a Wow! moment. Mostly I’m just carried along by the flow of the story, swept up in one wonderful scene after another, the (for modern readers) long opening that builds up the mystery surrounding Billy Bones, the shock of the pirates’ violent intrusion into Jim’s peaceful life, the peculiar oilskin packet that turns out to be a treasure map, etc., etc. How I love it. How I wish it would go on forever.

The One and Only Jim

Best of all, of course, is Jim himself. Resourceful, courageous, self-reliant—he would be an extraordinary hero at any age, but to have him be my own age was utterly magical. The two best moments in the whole story are when he really shows his mettle.

The first is when, having been chased around the deserted ship by a murderous pirate, Jim manages to scamper up a mast, perch in the cross-trees, and, with the pirate hot on his heels, reload his pistols (spoiled by a dousing) just in time to coolly declare, “One more step, Mr. Hands, and I’ll blow your brains out.”

Now that’s a hero—“Romeo’s a dishclout to him” (and so is anyone else you could name—go on, I dare you).

But the very best is when Jim, captured by the pirates, wounded, abandoned by his friends, surrounded by angry desperadoes only a hair’s breadth from murdering him out of hand, is offered a chance to save his life by joining the buccaneers. Instead, he stands tall and sets them at defiance with a bold speech that begins:

“Here you are, in a bad way: ship lost, treasure lost, men lost; your whole business gone to wreck; and if you want to know who did it—it was I!”

He proceeds to recount every single thing he has done to thwart them (it’s a long list), and concludes by counteroffering to testify on their behalf when they come to trial. However many times I read this scene, it thrills me through and through.

Yes, I still want to be Jim Hawkins.