by Harry Turtledove
Swallow's End Publishing
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
According to Marx Brother legend, in April of 1909, the Four Nightingales, comprised of the brother who would eventually be known as Groucho, Gummo, and Harpo, along with Lou Levy, were playing on a bill in Nacogdoches, Texas when a horse broke loose on main street and the theatre mostly emptied so the audience could enjoy the alternative entertainment. Groucho began insulting the town and its inhabitants and the brothers enjoyed telling the story for years to come, embellishing it as they did so that Chico claimed he was there, although it occurred before he joined the act.
In 1933, the Marx Brothers, now including Chico, Harpo, Groucho, and Zeppo, made the film Duck Soup, set in the fictional country of Freedonia, with Groucho appearing as Rufus T. Firefly, the President of the country who forces them ever closer to war with the neighboring Sylvania. It would be the last film the brothers make in which Zeppo appeared and after it was released, Paramount Studios decided to part ways with the Brothers, leaving their film career up in the air.
In 1826, a group of men living in Nacogdoches, Texas, led by Haden Edwards, decided to declare their independence from Mexico. The short-lived rebellion aimed to establish the Republic of Fredonia. The rebellion failed to gain traction among Stephen Austin and the men he led and although the local Cherokee originally agreed to support Edwards' troops, they reversed their decision and the Fredonian Rebellion collapsed.
Harry Turtledove has taken these three events, the fact that the Marx Brothers played in Nacogdoches and the coincidence that the rebellion of 1826 and the film of 1933 shared a similar name, to build a time travel story sending the four Marx Brothers on a journey through time from 1934 when their prospects at a low, back to 1826 Nacogdoches when their train stopped to take on coal during a thunderstorm en route to New Orleans. The resulting Hail, Hail!, taken from the opening lines of the Marx Brothers' "Freedonian Anthem" also takes advantage of the fact that one of the early supporters of the Fredonian Rebellion was a man named Adolphus Sterne who, like the Marx Brothers, was Jewish.
Turtledove does not fall into the trap that all too often occurs when authors write about the Marx Brothers of assuming that their film personas were the same as their real life characters. In the world of Hail, Hail!, Groucho is not constantly dropping one-liners, although he does make frequent use of puns, Harpo speaks, and Chico only brings out his accent to drive home a point. Turtledove's main character is Groucho, perhaps because he is the best known of the brothers, but also because Groucho was the closest the group had to an intellectual, and one of the important parts of the novel is that Groucho knows something about the Fredonian Rebellion, spurred on by an interest due to the aforementioned coincidences of place and name. In fact, Groucho is so much the focus that there are large periods of the story in which Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo seem to disappear altogether, leaving the reader wondering what they are doing when Groucho is altering the course of history.
Turtledove and his characters cover a lot of ground between their dealings with Sterne, Stephen Austin, the local Cherokee, Edwards, and Peter Ellis Bean. The Marx Brothers almost immediately identify themselves as coming from the future, using the coins they happen to be carrying and Groucho’s watch to prove their legitimacy. Giving no concern to maintaining the historicity of the timeline, they give advice to the rebels and Groucho even finds himself in a duel. The timeline of their adventure doesn’t fully allow Turtledove to explore the changes they bring about, but he is able to hint at them, and a return to the present allows him to briefly show what the Marx Brothers have done.