by Terri Schlichenmeyer
For New Pittsburgh Courier
For a quiet weekend getaway, there’s nothing like a novel.
A good novel is just what you need when you need escape. But as you’ll see in “The Black Count” by Tom Reiss, your favorite fiction may not be a fiction at all.
The knock on the door came just before midnight.
Alexandre Dumas, then 4 years old and the future author of “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers,” remembered the sound, even as an adult. It was a knock that brought word of his father’s death.
Dumas’ father, Thomas-Alexandre Delisle, was born in 1762 in Saint-Domingue to a fugitive nobleman and a Black slave. Known as a fine horseman, Thomas-Alexandre’s life was idyllic until his father brought him to France in 1776. There, the boy was educated and later changed his name to become, as Reiss calls him, the “original Alex Dumas.”
Though he was technically “owned” by his father, Alex Dumas père’s French education and his life as a nobleman’s son was possible, says Reiss, because of several French laws and concepts. Slavery was allowed in France, but the French also embraced the “undeniable right to freedom” once a Black slave landed on French soil. Though Dumas was dark-skinned, his appearance was “admired and celebrated,” but not as much as his later accomplishments on the battlefield.
Much taller than his contemporaries, Dumas was said to look like a centaur when riding. He was extraordinarily strong, wide-shouldered and well-built, and good with a sword. Though he joined the French Revolution as an enlisted man, he quickly worked his way up to general and eventually fought alongside Napoleon.
But in 1799, on his way home from Egypt, the great soldier was captured by Italian forces and became a prisoner of war. Released two years later, betrayed by his country, he never fought again.
Part classic literature, part biography, and very steeped in French history, “The Black Count” explains the correlation between Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling stories and the man who inspired them. And that’s all good—if you’re into French history, because that makes up a good portion of this book.
Author Tom Reiss brings plenty of excitement to Dumas’ story, but it comes between pages and pages of battle descriptions and details that are nice to know but not necessarily integral to Dumas’ biography. That tended to slow the story down, which often made me lose sight of its importance; specifically, that this inspirational, battle-tested historical and literary figure lived in a surprisingly enlightened time and died in relative obscurity. Reiss tells us why, but it takes awhile to get there.
(“The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo” by Tom Reiss, c.2012, Crown, $27/$29.95 Canada, 414 pages, includes index.)
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