Jonathan Carrick is the boy bought by greedy and merciless Alvah Stoke. He lives in an earth hut with the animals, while the Stoke family lives in a wooden house Jonathan designed and helped to build. Alvah beats him to unconsciousness when he tries to run away, and Alvah's son George taunts him cruelly with his inferiority. Each Wednesday of his whole childhood Jonathan has to spend in the fields, among the tobacco plants, squeezing hideous tobacco worms to death.
For ever afterwards Jonathan is haunted by a horror of Wednesdays and a hatred of George, who grows up to become a liberal Senator - obese and ugly as a tobacco worm, with a face on which 'his eyebrows slithered around . . . like live bait in a fishing bucket' but nevertheless a national hero. Jonathan makes his escape at 16, and goes on to become a railroad man and a preacher. But he cannot shake off his desire for revenge, which is plotted like a military campaign.
The story of Jonathan's sad and angry life is put together in the novel by his wheelchair-bound English granddaughter, in a narrative that marries the account told by her boozy American uncle Atlas and what she learns from Jonathan's own diaries. Drawing on the military theories of von Clausewitz, she traces the progress of a hatred as inexorable as a marching army, and compels the reader along inescapably, like a prisoner of war.
Theory of War makes a gripping and harrowing story, told with exceptional skill. It resonates beyond the particular experience of one family, opening up an unacknowledged part of American history - Jonathan's transcontinental rail journeys give us a convincing portrait of boom towns and rural poverty that reinvents America without succumbing to pioneering cliches. Jonathan's experience of slavery also becomes an allegory of American society and a commentary on notions of freedom everywhere.