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REVIEW: Broken Promises by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

1861: The war that’s been brewing for a decade has exploded, pitting North against South. Fearing that England will support the Confederate cause, President Lincoln sends Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams, to London. But when Charles arrives, accompanied by his son Henry, he discovers that the English are already building warships for the South. As Charles embarks on a high-stakes game of espionage and diplomacy, Henry reconnects with his college friend Baxter Sams, a Southerner who has fallen in love with Englishwoman Julia Birch. Julia’s family reviles Americans, leaving Baxter torn between his love for Julia, his friendship with Henry, and his obligations to his own family, who entreat him to run medical supplies across the blockade to help the Confederacy. As tensions mount, irrevocable choices are made—igniting a moment when history could have changed forever.

Dear Ms. Hoffman,

Broken Promises by Elizabeth Cobbs HoffmanWith this being the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, I would imagine that we’ll be seeing a lot more new books on the subject as well as revisiting older ones. When Jane sent out a box of books to me for possible review, your book was among them. Since I’d never read a book showing these events as seen from “across the pond” I decided to give it a whirl and see what I thought. “Broken Promises” turned out to be a quicker read then I thought it would and I did want to know what would happen next. But I found some parts engaged me more than others.

Actual historical personages are mixed with fictional ones as well as, I assume, real events with ones which sprang entirely from your imagination. The melding of fictional with real characters is good and I didn’t get the feeling that famous people were being dumped into the narrative just for flash or show. As well, most of the characters seemed as if they “fit” the times rather than just being 21st century people playing dress-up in Victorian clothes. However some of them seemed much more vibrant and alive to me.

I did learn a lot that was new to me about how the war was viewed in England and Europe as well as how America was seen – still as an upstart experiment in government that many nations would have been more than happy to see fall flat on its face and fail. I also hadn’t realized that at that point, Britain didn’t deem us worthy of an ambassadorial exchange. How lowering. The fact that there was so much behind the scenes support of the Confederacy surprised me as well. I knew that the South had sought British recognition but it was chilling to see how close it came to getting it and how the US and the UK almost entered a third war in less than a century.

But I wanted to actually “see” more diplomatic exchanges. There are a lot of scenes of Charles Adams and his son Henry discussing what might be happening, what could happen, what they wished they knew was happening but it was the brief, and lone, scene of Charles, before he sailed for England, meeting with Lincoln and Seward in Washington that I liked best and which felt more alive. Then too so many things which happened in England, such as abolitionist meetings or speeches from English politicians which could serve to sway the outcome of the war, were reported as after events instead of showing them as they were occuring. I felt this kept me at arms length from the story.

Much time was spent on Charles and the American attache in Liverpool chasing after information regarding the warships which the South was commissioning from English shipbuilders. While this information is important to the story, I’ll be honest and say that so much of it got dull. Yet I can see that it would be hard to turn these sections into page turning thriller chapters. Slow paced, nitty gritty investigations rarely are.

I did like learning more about Charles Adams and how he viewed himself in his famous family. Son and grandson of two American presidents, he must have felt more pressure than that which he put upon himself to live up to the family name. I also enjoyed the bits of Henry in London, his thoughts as a young man sitting out his generation’s war all in an effort for which he’d probably never gain great recognition. Sort of a minor version of General Marshall during WWII. Great things get done off the battlefield which can win a war but which usually go unsung.

Julia Birch is an interesting fictional character. She’s going along, running her father’s household when this war across the ocean starts to change her and awaken her to her inner strength. Her idealism of ending slavery vs her father’s in making money from the Confederacy serves to polarize them and hones the edge of how far apart she is from what her father demands and what most of society expects of her and of Victorian womanhood. Will she stay safe, living with her father, waiting for a suitable suitor when women outnumber men, pushing her idealism deep inside her or will she break free, be her own woman, dare to reach for who she wants and stand up for what she believes in – abolition and Baxter Sams.
Baxter is an honorable man but it will be hard for many to feel much sympathy for him in what he did regardless of its humanitarian cloaking. His story shows how war tore apart friendships but he shared with Henry the fear all must have felt for their loved ones on the battlefield. I’ve heard about the blockade running for eons but never taken the time to find out exactly how it was done. The pulse racing blockade running scene was among my favorites in the book.

The proposal he makes to Julia is perfectly in keeping with the gallant, witty character of the book but then what? What happens to them? Do they try to return to the South during war? Return to UK? What? And though I can see why book ends at this point, as the tide has turned in war along with the UK/Europe view of it, but still feels unfinished as it’s only mid 1863.

It is an interesting tale of events I knew little of but, as I said, the fictional stuff is easier and more interesting to read – as well as having the romance – than shipbuilding investigation parts. I wish parts of it weren’t quite so dry and think it might appeal to those more interested in history. Still as it’s the Sesquicentennial of the events it’s a timely reminder of what happened, how it affected individual people, a nation divided and how the world viewed what was going on here. C+


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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. tori
    May 19, 2011 @ 08:13:26

    Wonderful review. Sounds interesting. I’m a sucker for historical fiction and since my father was a civil war professor, I tend to gravitate towards this period more often then not.

  2. Jayne
    May 19, 2011 @ 11:07:06

    @tori: Well, with that background, it sounds like the book should be right up your alley.

  3. dm
    May 19, 2011 @ 12:27:58

    As Charles embarks on a high-stakes game of espionage and diplomacy, Henry reconnects with his college friend Baxter Sams, a Southerner who has fallen in love with Englishwoman Julia Birch.

    I read this in the blurb and my story-problem alarm went off. It’s the “As Charles…Henry reconnects,” part. No cause and effect between the two. If you don’t have strong cause and effect in your blurb, your story probably needs tightening. And I can’t tell from this description who this book belongs to. Charles? Henry? Julia? That probably means lack of focus in the storytelling. I couldn’t help but think “this sounds like a self-pubbed book.”

    I clicked over to Amazon and discovered that this was in fact a self-pubbed book that came out through Iuniverse a couple of years ago and is now being republished by Random House. The original title was In the Lion’s Den.

    I come across a lot of self-pubbed titles that appeal to me for their unusual settings, and often, particularly with historicals, the research is solid but the storytelling is amateurish. It’s the conundrum of self publishing. It brings me the kinds of stories I want to read, but it often prevents the writers of those stories from honing their craft skills to tell the best stories they can.

    Based on your review and the blurb, I’ll pass on this one.

  4. d-day
    May 19, 2011 @ 18:14:02

    I guess just proving that bad publicity is better than no publicity, while I generally try to avoid Civil War as a romance backdrop, the thing that intrigues me most about this is the comment about shipbuilding. I am an boat nerd and love reading anything and everything about old sailing ships. Will definitely read this one!

  5. Jayne
    May 19, 2011 @ 19:21:12

    @d-day: Weeeeel, it’s not so much about exactly how the ships were built so much as them trying to prove that these were ships commissioned by the Confederate government and then getting the British government to act on that proof.

    But there is a teensy bit about what type of ships were being built.

  6. Susan/DC
    May 21, 2011 @ 08:33:44

    A couple of weeks ago I heard Drew Gilpin Faust give the Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The lecture is an annual event and is free — just go online to get a ticket. I mention this because she was a professor of history and a Civil War expert. She talked about how our view of the Civil War has changed in the last 50 years, both as a result of changes in attitudes but also as more research has been done. Much of her work focuses on the lives of ordinary people, not just the Great Men and battles that many historians focus on. For example, she’s written books on the women left behind (both in the North and South) when the men went to war, using sources such as their diaries and letters. She was brilliant, and even though I’d not read any of her books before I heard the lecture, I’m definitely going to read them in the future and I recommend her work to others interested in the time period.

  7. Jayne
    May 24, 2011 @ 11:51:09

    @Susan/DC: Ooh, thanks for the information. I love these source books which have become so popular post Ken Burn’s Civil War.

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