James O'Neill. Garrison Tales from Tonquin: An American's Stories of the French Foreign Legion in Vietnam in the 1890s. Edited, with an introduction, by Charles Royster. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006, Pp. lxiv, 119. $30.00.)
Charles Royster, editor of this slim volume, is owed a good deal of thanks for bringing these little-known stories back to light. Given their setting in late-nineteenth century Indochina and their anti-imperial tone, the tales would have made appropriate reading during the 1960s, and it is surprising that their recovery has taken so long. Even still, they bear some relevance, if that's what a prospective reader seeks, to our present predicament.
James O'Neill was born in Connecticut in 1860 to a working-class family. During the 1870s he and his sister gained the attention of a priest affiliated with the Anglo-Catholic Cowley Fathers, who had set up a mission, based first in Bridgeport and then in Boston. Eventually, O'Neill was sent to be educated at the order's mission school at Oxford University, while his sister became an Anglican nun in the Society of Saint Margaret. O'Neill returned to the United States during the mid-1880s, but he does not seem to have ever felt comfortable there. He returned to Europe in 1887 and enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. His regiment was based in Algeria, but a detachment of 300, including O'Neill, sailed for Tonkin in 1890. Two years later, he was one of twenty-seven members of the battalion who returned. Not all of the legionnaires had died (many had been sent back earlier because of injury, illness, or end of service) , but the number offers ample evidence of the horrors O'Neill and his polyglot comrades faced on the Vietnamese, or Annamite, peninsula. After his service had ended, O'Neill returned to America and tried to become a man of letters. Garrison Tales from Tonquin appeared in 1895, receiving some favorable mentions in the press but selling poorly. Next to nothing is known of him after about 1897.
Royster's lengthy introduction masterfully weaves O'Neill's life story (sketchy as it is) with historical analyses of service in the French Foreign Legion, French imperial efforts in Indochina, and the Cowley Fathers order (also known as the Society of St. John the Evangelist) . He also displays a sure footing with the stories themselves, offering trenchant, if often overbearing, comments on the themes with which O'Neill grappled. …