garrison tales from tonquin

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Enlisting in the French Foreign Legion has long held a tantalizing allure for Americans, especially for young men in search of adventure. Outside their fantasies, though, few Americans ever joined the legion. It is, therefore, a surprise to discover these extraordinary short stories, written by a legionnaire who was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. James O'Neill enlisted in the legion in 1887, at the age of twenty-seven. He found himself, in 1890, deployed to Tonquin in French Indochina, more familiar today as Tonkin, Vietnam. O'Neill faced tropical heat, infectious disease, and sudden death, but, like his contemporary Stephen Crane, he was blessed with a reporter's sense of the telling detail and a novelist's ability to tell an engaging story. In these thirteen "tales," O'Neill shows—with surprising subtlety—that France's efforts to conquer and govern Indochina were foolhardy. Although the only American in his stories is the narrator, it is clear that the tales are aimed at readers in the United States and are intended to caution against the construction of empires abroad. However, these are not polemical tirades. They are absorbing, unadorned stories, remarkably contemporary in both style and substance. Charles Royster provides a short biography of O'Neill, who seems to have vanished into obscurity a few years after these stories were first published in 1895. Royster has also unearthed and included two essays O'Neill published in magazines of the time, one a description of a Buddhist temple in Hanoi and the other an appreciation of the Hungarian novelist Maurus Jókai. Whether read for historical value, literary merit, or political insights, Garrison Tales from Tonquin is a true discovery.
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