Saturday, November 22, 2014

Book Review: Chesapeake

Thinking about school so much for so long has put the hurt on my creative juices. I thought it'd be fun to do a few book reviews.

First up, Chesapeake by James A. Michener.

Question: what's the best way to hunt a congregation of ducks from a boat?

Answer: slavery is evil!

Don't get it? You will.

James Michener is one of my all-time favorite novelists, best known for what Wikipedia defines as "geographic historical fiction." In other words, Michener picks an area and shows all of the human and environmental factors that made it unique. He's best known for his debut novel Tales of the South Pacific, which got turned into a Broadway musical. While Centennial is often considered his best work (and my favorite of all his books thus far), it's been a while since I read it, so we're looking at the one I recently finished.

Michener always gave his works blatantly obvious titles. You know exactly what you're in for when you pick up the book. Or do you?

Chesapeake is the story of the Chesapeake Bay and the people from the surrounding states. The novel covers a large chunk of time, approximately 1530-1978. Being one of his family sagas, the reader comes to know people from the Choptank Indians, Quakers, farmers, African slaves, and sailors (including pirates!).

There are three families that drive most of the conflict in Chesapeake: The Steeds, Turlocks, and Paxmores.

The Steeds are the well-to-do plantation owners and represent the upper crust of society. They dominate affairs from their mansion on Devon Island for generations until the Civil War. In the aftermath, they fight to hold onto the memory of a bygone era.

The Turlocks are uncouth backwoodsmen who have a knack for survival. Masters of the sail, they hit the high seas to make a name for themselves and reap their fortunes. Their cunning and grit are their greatest assets. They hardly change from one generation to the next.

The Paxmores are Quakers, always defying the social norms. When they're not getting kicked out of Maryland for protesting the public punishment of women, they're helping runaway slaves get to Pennsylvania. They would rather suffer the contempt of all mankind than betray their convictions, but occasionally they take time to build really good ships (so long as you promise not to do anything immoral with it).

Like most of Michener's work, the book does not follow a single overarching plot. Each chapter, or "voyage," highlights the struggles of a particular generation. If you're well-read in American history, you'll see plenty of things on the horizon, but get a close look at them from a different perspective. And, like most of Michener's novels, you get to see some of America's legendary characters, like John Smith, George Washington, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. Even John James Audubon gets a shout-out (though he isn't named in the text).

The first half of the book is good. You learn about the Indians and how they dealt with the coming of the white man. If you don't know anything about Quakers, this book will teach you how they got started and some of their most important beliefs. You learn about the migration pattern of Canadian geese. You even get a chapter on how the Atlantic slave trade continued even after it was banned in Britain and America.

But the Quakers ended up being one of the things that almost ruined this book for me.

Michener's work is great because it shows how things changed. In the Chesapeake area, they didn't change as much, and that's fine. However, Michener puts an unusual amount of importance on the Quakers. Despite the fact that several of the characters go off to fight in the Civil War, we don't see them fighting. That part happens "off camera."

What we do get is chapter after chapter about the Quakers agitating against slavery and promoting equal rights. This wasn't a bad thing, at first. It helped establish the Paxmore family. I was captivated by the part about a group of slaves going north in a daring bid for freedom. It was a detailed account of the Underground Railroad. I enjoyed watching the Quakers debate with their neighbors (including the religious ones) about the Bible (being a Christian myself, I've wondered how so many of the faithful could tolerate and promote such wickedness).

But Michener thought he had to write about them in every section. So, from their arrival in the 1600s to 1978, there's a chapter going back to slavery and race relations. And these chapters are long, like 100 pages long!

There came a point when I said, "Ok, I get it! The Paxmores don't like slavery and are doing whatever they can to sabotage it. There has to be something else going on somewhere!"

After giving it some thought, the only explanation I can think of is that Michener was trying to communicate how slavery was the hot-button issue of all people pre-1861. No matter where you were, all politics eventually came back to slavery. It was in your face day in and day out. Characters in the book get sick and tired of talking about it. But when you've got 1000+ pages of narrative, does it really merit that much attention?

And speaking of 1,000 pages, I think that's one of Chesapeake's biggest weaknesses. The original publication in 1978 was cut by 300 pages to save binding costs, and the latter section was released as its own title, The Watermen.

Honestly, I didn't like it. Too much of the same. Racism. Duck hunting. Ship-building. Bleh.

Not only that, but Michener decided to introduce a whole new cast of characters in the last 100 pages.

At this point, I just threw up my hands and said "I. Don't. Care."

After 950+ pages of text, centuries of following these people, you can't fling a new bunch of characters and expect me, the reader, to care. You haven't established these people from their childhood. To me, they're not part of the families. They just appear. All of the original characters die "off screen." You're asking me to start over.

Several reviews on Amazon have compared Chesapeake to Centennial in terms of structure and flow. I think the latter book is superior in every way, and one reason is that the cast of characters is much much smaller. You don't need a legal pad to take notes on who people are and their relationship to one another. All of the natural and scientific stuff that Michener researched is carefully woven into a human story to show what it was like to be alive, and it works.

So, when a chapter of Watermen pulled me away from the human drama to talk about coastal erosion patterns, I did something I rarely do when reading a novel: I skipped.

Yes, I skipped to the very last chapter (four pages of text). To my surprise, the ending was pretty good. Devon Island is eroded to such a degree that is collapses and sinks into the bay, thus showing the great circle of life. Dust in the wind, that sort of thing. I think the novel would have worked better if Michener had tacked that onto the ending and cut the rest of Watermen.

If you've never read any of Michener's work, I wouldn't recommend Chesapeake. Start with something a bit shorter and work your way up.

Don't get me wrong, it's a great novel, but far from his best. After the Civil War, the story kind stalls and I found myself thinking, "Ok...and?"

My father is the person who originally got me reading Michener. Alaska was his favorite, so maybe I'll read that next.

Power to the pen!

1 comment:

  1. Great review. Now you've encouraged me to pick yp a Michener book or more and start reading. Last one of his I read must have been 20 or more years ago, Caribbean. Not as good as Alaska.