Book Review: The Black Count

The Black Count
By: Tom Reiss
Published By: Crown
Publication Date: September 2012
Page Count: 414
Source: Library
Audience: Adult - Nonfiction, Biography

If you’re in the mood for a well-written biography about a lesser known historical figure, this is your book. 

Lots of readers and movie-goers are familiar with The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, both stories by Alexandre Dumas. But what most don’t know is that the author drew inspiration for those stories from the life of his own father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailletrie (later simply Alex Dumas). Do you remember the scene in The Three Musketeers where d'Artagnan ends up having to fight three duels in one afternoon? According to Reiss’s research, that episode was inspired by an incident during Dumas’s father’s army service. Or how about when Edmond Dantès is imprisoned in a fortress? That also happened to Alex Dumas. 

In The Black Count, Tom Reiss exposes the amazing story of Alex Dumas’s rise from illegitimate son of an aristocratic French father and a Haitian slave mother (who was himself sold into slavery) to one of the commanding generals of the French Revolution. As if the story of Alex Dumas himself weren’t sensational enough (black general commanding thousands of white troops in Europe, anyone?), Reiss frames The Black Count with his investigation into new documents that illuminate the life of Alex Dumas and why after a life of such remarkable accomplishments he was practically forgotten by history. 

 Although it was happenstance that I ended up with the audio version of The Black Count (it was available from the library before the print edition), I’m glad that I did. Paul Michael narrates the book with such liveliness and emotion that he practically hypnotized me into listening. Also, I’ve never taken French and my pronunciation of written French is absolutely horrifying. Having Paul Michael’s expert pronunciation as a model will help me not sound like a complete idiot when I talk to other people about this book!

Here is the remarkable true story of the real Count of Monte Cristo – a stunning feat of historical sleuthing that brings to life the forgotten hero who inspired such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

The real-life protagonist of The Black Count, General Alex Dumas, is a man almost unknown today yet with a story that is strikingly familiar, because his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, used it to create some of the best loved heroes of literature.

Yet, hidden behind these swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: the real hero was the son of a black slave -- who rose higher in the white world than any man of his race would before our own time. 

Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Alex Dumas was briefly sold into bondage but made his way to Paris where he was schooled as a sword-fighting member of the French aristocracy. Enlisting as a private, he rose to command armies at the height of the Revolution, in an audacious campaign across Europe and the Middle East – until he met an implacable enemy he could not defeat.

The Black Count is simultaneously a riveting adventure story, a lushly textured evocation of 18th-century France, and a window into the modern world’s first multi-racial society. But it is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son.