The latest installment in Chris Schweizer’s Crogan’s Adventures series, Crogan’s Loyalty, follows the story of Revolutionary War era brothers Charles and William Crogan who find themselves with different loyalties. The story begins with a frame narrative, two boys locked into the backseat for a road trip, forced to fight over benchseat territory, stare out the window for hours on end or listen to Dad talk about Family and History and Loyalty, all big ideas in need of capital letters and captive audiences. Despite this setup dredging up somewhat painful memories of a hideous silver Astrovan, a terribly clever and therefore wholly unlikable older brother and a biannual road trip from South Carolina to Massachusetts, my interest was piqued.
Fortunately, the horror of the family trip flashback is short lived as Crogan’s Loyalty fast jumps back in time, following William and Charles as they both act as advanced scouts for their armies. A chance meeting in the woods, a poor shot (“Intentional,” says one brother. “Inferior,” claims the other) and a scuffle over sides and the brothers are off, finding themselves depending on the hospitality of first the Dockreys and then the Maquachake, each situation throwing into sharper focus their political differences – while their personalities, their driving beliefs, draw closer together.
Sure, Will and Charlie fight over their respective sides, though the rhetoric of each blurs – “loyalty” and “patriotism” and “honor” shift between the two naturally, easily. The situations that they land in – a frontier family and a reluctant Chief Jonah – afford the opportunity for a bit of exposition, a bit of historical justification. Eventually, though, they give up the pretense and let themselves be brothers first, laughing in the woods over a shared memory of a mongoose in a beard – before awkwardly parting ways, each headed back to his own side with a report from the field. It’s awkward and tense and still so right, such a natural moment that encapsulates the divide that these characters face, a pause in the woods before all hell breaks loose again.
There’s a disagreement, as there has to be. A misunderstanding, as there always is. A betrayal and a cross-betrayal and a confession that was never on the level. There’s fighting and shooting and perhaps a bit of stabbing – not very surprising for a war novel (or for a family drama, for that matter). Throughout it all, though, there’s the feeling that, as with any family, it’s the words that cut deeper, the accusations that burn a little too hot.
Throughout, it’s Schweizer’s characters – their depth, their humanity – that lead the story. While this could easily become a dry history of a well-known war, yet another illustrated guide to American history, it’s Schweizer’s understanding of his characters that make this novel work. The story covers the difference between the two sides of the war, sure – but it does so as the story of individuals, the way that two brothers view the ideas of loyalty and patriotism. This familiarity brings the words back down to a tangible level, no longer in need of capital letters – just in need of a Will or a Charlie and a memory shared. The tensions that Schweizer injects into Charlie and Will’s relationship – a tension that bristles despite its foundation of love – is what makes the story work, regardless of setting.
I admit, I came into Crogan’s Loyalty a new reader – I hadn’t yet run across Schweizer’s work so was completely unfamiliar with the Crogan family history. Because I tend to the obsessing side, I spent far too long poring over the family tree at the start of the work – thinking that this was going to be key to my keeping up, understanding these characters in medias res. But, there’s something to these stories, something that rings true of any family dynamic that makes the Crogans – both contemporary and historic – feel familiar within the first few pages. Anyone who has a sibling knows this kind of tension, the absolute certainty that you’re right and your brother is wrong, the absolute willingness to defend him despite it all. Sure, you come away with a feeling of the swirling tensions of wartime, but it’s more about family relationships that just happen to be set against this backdrop.
Schweizer’s panels are deep, crowded with background and detail, visually grounding the story in the chaotic woods. Sometimes, this background overwhelms, distracting and smothering the characters under the forest settings. I like to believe that this is intentional, that you’re supposed to lose the characters for a moment – maybe because they’re both scouts for their respective sides and thus able to melt into the background, maybe because they’re supposed to seem small against a wild stretch of country, certainly not because the black-and-white line drawing got away from Schweizer, the joy of the art dominating the panel itself.
It’s this play with scale and focus that adds something special to Crogan’s Loyalty, that makes me want to come back around to this and give it another read – it feels like there’s more to this than just the story at hand, that there are twists beyond the superficial, that Schweizer is knowingly playing with the form to its fullest. This implied depth isn’t really something I’d expected, coming into this – my own prejudice, perhaps, on the fact that this is billed as a Children/Young Adult story. In cases like these, though, I don’t really mind being proven wrong – and, given that Schweizer is a full professor of Sequential Art at SCAD, I’d imagine that the vibe of depth that I’m getting is very real and very intentional.
Crogan’s Loyalty ends with both a resolution and a stunning lack thereof, the resistance for a clean summary satisfying in light of the many opposing forces pulling on these family members. It left me intrigued, interested in finding the earlier Crogan books – and maybe, possibly willing to go on a family road trip again.