Friday, October 26, 2007

North and South, by John Jakes [3]

***/***** (3/5)

John Jakes' American Civil War trilogy
1. North and South (3/5)
2. Love and War
3. Heaven and Hell

Here we confront another great lure of the subject: its fascinating and tragic paradox. The schism should not have happened, and [yet] it had to happen (speaking of the American Civil War). But that is my interpretation; as one historian has said, "Every man creates his own Civil War." --John Jakes in his Afterword of NORTH AND SOUTH

I frantically devoured John Jakes' opening salvo on the American Civil War, a behemoth 735-page hardcover entitled NORTH AND SOUTH (published in 1982). Its sequel, LOVE AND WAR, clocks in at 1,078 pages and I've already started it. Not since Elizabeth Chadwick's LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE have I found a book so unputdownable as Jakes' NORTH AND SOUTH. Deftly weaving factual events and people in American History with fictional characters and storylines, this astutely impartial novel sets the stage for the Civil War (1861-1865). Our tale here begins on June 1842 when two youngsters from opposing regions and contrasting opulent families (one family from the industrial north, the other from the plantation south) commence their turbulent friendship at West Point, and climaxes on April 12, 1861 when Confederate soldiers led by Brigadier General Beauregard opened fire on Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, marking the onset of a bloody American Civil War which claimed over 620,000 lives (more than all the wars in
American history combined).

John Jakes balances factual events and people, fictional families, friendships,
poignant characterizations, love, lust, extremist fanaticism, and politics all under the shadow of slavery and racism which ripple even to this day. This book's primary intent? Entertainment. Although factually bloodier and darker than Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian Warlord trilogy, a glibly melodramatic fictional plotting characterizes Jakes' NORTH AND SOUTH, and this book definitely seemed lighter (than Cornwell's Warlord trilogy). Although consisting of some tense episodic plotting, all of our fictitious protagonists survive in this opening installment, albeit with some wear and tear. I actually wanted Charles Main to die. I didn't necessarily like the decidedly Southern focus of the novel, or some of the soap-opera-ish, melodramatic fictional plotting which just prompted questions of idiocy towards some of the characters. Half the time, I felt like I was reading a more intense version of the 80s TV serials Dallas or Falcon Crest about rich families. You remember those, don't you?

"Which way will you go, sir? North or South?"

[General Robert E. Lee's] face looked haggard in the rain. "I'm certain of one thing only. No matter how each man or woman answers the question you asked, I think there will be but one result from what we've allowed the extremists to do to us. Heartbreak. Good-bye, Lieutenant."

I thought NORTH AND SOUTH skillfully portrayed the factual events, politics and
fervid extremist views on both sides which embroil this conflict. Jakes convincingly illustrates how a sectional storm of extremist malevolence could wipe away reason and good intentions. Personal ambitions and desires drive much of the extremist views. Anti-slavery, antagonistic northern views seems to put the South on the defensive, and Jakes magnificently captures how even reasonable men from the south against slavery fight for the South because of prevalently generalized anti-southern sentiments. The book conveys many factual legislation, people, politics, writers and authors during this time period, all of which widens the sectional schism and races the country to an unnecessary yet imperative conflict (the paradox that Jakes speaks of in his afterword). Jakes deftly realizes West Point, its cadets and its curriculum, an Academy which produces most if not all the brilliant Civil War officers on both sides. The book adeptly highlights the contrasting economies between the industrial North and the agricultural South, an economic contrast symbolized by the very appearance of our fictional families: the stocky, blue-collar ironmasters the Hazards from Pennsylvania, and the tall, aristocratic rice plantation owners the Mains from South Carolina.

Cooper Main: "This is the age of the machine, and we [the South] refuse to acknowledge it. We cling to agriculture and our past, while we fall farther and farther out of step. Once the South practically ran this country. No more. Every year we lose respect and influence at the national level. And with reason. We aren't attuned to the times." He stopped short of citing the familiar proof -- the peculiar institution to which the South's prosperity had become shackled as firmly as the slaves themselves were bound to their owners.

Cooper had concluded that the significant difference between the economic systems of the North and South was not in industry versus agriculture but in motivation. The free Yankee worked to better himself. The Southern slave worked to keep from being punished. That difference was slowly rotting the South from the inside...

Cooper Main: "We're content to be what we've been for a hundred and fifty years -- farmers whose crops depend on the sweat of black bondsmen. We ignore men like George's father, even though they're becoming legion up North. George's father manufactures iron with free labor. That iron goes into machines. Machines are creating the future. The Yankees understand what this century's all about, but we only understand the last one..."

George Hazard: "This piece [of meteor fragment] may have traveled millions and millions of miles before it crashed here. My father says the iron trade has had more influence on the course of history than all the politicians and generals since the beginning of time" -- he held up the meteorite -- "and this is the reason. Iron can destroy anything: families, fortunes, governments, whole countries. It's the most powerful stuff in the universe."

"Oh? You really think it's more powerful than a big army?" [asked Orry Main].

"Without weapons -- without this -- there
are no big armies."

The book intermingles much history into the fiction: we hear about Robert E. Lee's military brilliance early in this novel and often, we hear about all the legislation which attempted to balance interests over slavery from the Missouri Compromise to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (allowed residents to decide over the slavery issue). We're intimately involved in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) caused by a dispute over Texas' southern borders from the eyes and ears of our main characters Orry Main and George Hazard. Several incendiary historical figures conflagrate the delicate balance between the North and South: former Vice President and South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun and South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks to revolutionary abolutionist John Brown. The book also notes the Nullification Crisis over the Tariff of 1828 which hit South Carolina particularly hard and triggers the debate over power at the state versus federal level. The book further has many of its fictional characters read popular literary works during the time including Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Late in the novel, we even meet Confederate President Jefferson Davis, seen as a sharp and astute leader by northerner George Hazard. Later in 1861 we met Abraham Lincoln at the onset of the Civil War, when many northern politicians view Lincoln as a weak leader while southerners see him as an ape.

Why were three adults so upset about one man's escape? ... At last George [Hazard] began to understand something of the Southern dilemma. He began to understand the stranglehold that slavery had on those who practiced it. Not one slave could be allowed to escape, for if one succeeded, thousands might try. The Mains and all others like them were prisoners of the very system by which they profited. And they were prisoners of fear.

There's quite a bit of love and romance in this novel. We have the emotionally-charged, angst-filled and impossible romance between Orry Main and Madeline LaMotte lasting the entire novel. There's the rushed romance between George Hazard and Constance receiving very superficial treatment. There's the romance between Cooper Main and Judith, and that was a sweet one actually. Finally, and my favorite, we have the romance between Billy Hazard and Brett Main sealing the connection between the two families, and representing the potential for love between North and South during a time of turmoil and conflict.

[Billy Hazard] studied [Brett Main's] eyes. How pretty they were. How free of guile. She wasn't as flamboyantly attractive as Ashton, and she never would be. Yet she did possess beauty, he thought; beauty of a simpler, more substantial sort, compounded in part of the shy gentleness of her gaze and the kindness of her smile. It was a beauty that time could never erode, as it could her sister's. It ran like a rich, pure vein, all the way to the center of Brett's being.

Or so his romantic eye told him.

I found the titles of the prologue and the four parts of the novel very chilling and the writing/content therein often adds to the title's ominous tones. The prologue, entitled Two Fortunes, sets up the two prominent families as early as 1686 from the first-generation immigrants that traveled to the British colonies. More than 6 generations later, second sons Orry Main and George Hazard meet and form close bonds in the first part called Answer to the Drum. This first part also has Orry and George in the Mexican-American War after graduating from West Point. The second part Friends and Enemies establishes civil strife between and within families while Charles Main and Billy Hazard follow in Orry & George's footsteps at West Point. More of a soap opera feeling dominates Friends and Enemies. The third part gives me goosebumps every time and all the more because it's a quote a by real historical figure: "The Cords that Bind are Breaking One by One." South Carolina is the first to secede from the Union in this third and pivotal part and we're privy to the orgasmic celebrating in Charleston after South Carolina's secession. The fourth and final part March Into Darkness marks the commencement of the Civil War as Confederate troops open fire on Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. There's also long and contrived plotting dealing with our fictional characters during this time (albeit entirely addictive). The end here stretches quite a bit as Orry Main travels up to Union territory during this time of war. All in all, the book spans from 1842 to 1861 discounting the prologue which sets up the first-generation immigrants in 1686 over 6 generations earlier.

You might think a novel about the American Civil War would focus more on the North, right? Not so in this opening installment, I thought Jakes skews the bulk of the perspective from the South and the Southern family Mains. The Mains are a lot more fleshed out: Tillet Main the father, both his sons Cooper and Orry, and both his daughters Ashton and Brett. I'd be remiss not to mention Tillet's nephew and Orry's cousin the reckless, yet incredibly handsome Charles Main whose adventures and character development probably outshine that of any other character in terms of sheer page count (his early reckless brawling and whoring ways, his development into a gentleman when he prepares for a duel with a Smith, and finally his leadership as a soldier after he's stationed at Texas). By contrast, the northern Pennsylvania industrialists the Hazards receive, at best, a perfunctory treatment: the patriarch William Hazard perishes in the first part of the novel, Stanley the eldest son isn't nearly as interesting as Cooper Main, and consequently, doesn't receive nearly as much attention. Orry's perspective and love story easily overshadows George Hazard's (Orry and George are the two second sons who meet and become friends at West Point in 1842, remember). Cousin Charles Main's character development and adventures eclipses Billy Hazard's, the youngest Hazard brother, and for that matter, eclipses that of every other character as well. And of course Ashton and Brett Main are far more evident than the irksome, fanatic Hazard daughter, Virgilia. Furthermore, Orry's love interest Madeline LaMotte is a lot more fleshed out than George Hazard's love interest Constance.

Madeline LaMotte thinking: Something in the young cadet's eyes, in [Orry Main's] courtly bearing and his shy demeanor, called out to her, spoke to her on a deep and primitive level.

Slavery and issues from the South (particularly South Carolina which is the first state to secede in 1861) could explain the pronounced Southern focus and the emphasis on all the Mains (the American version of British aristocracy in the 18th and 19th-century fueled by slavery).
Regardless of the reasons for this decided focus on the Mains, I found myself wanting more perspectives from the North and from Billy Hazard (the youngest Hazard son) in particular to offset a lopsided emphasis on Charles Main. Unfortunately, there's more plotting focusing exclusively on Orry and Charles Main than on George and Billy Hazard. For example, during a leave from West Point after George and Orry's second year, the novel shifts its attention emphatically on Orry Main and Mont Royal, South Carolina, also setting up Madeline LaMotte and the other Mains in the process. During Madeline's marriage reception to Justin LaMotte, Charles Main (Orry's cousin) shines as a young rogue brawler. Nothing whatsoever about what George Hazard did back home in Pennsylvania and nothing about his family in any interesting or involved fashion. Cooper Main visits his younger brother Orry at West Point earlier as well. Following the Mexican-American War, we finally find more of an account on the Hazards as George feuds with his inept older brother Stanley and wrests control of Hazard Iron away from him after their father's death. Still, we find much more extensive plots dealing with Orry, Ashton, Brett, Cooper, Charles and Madeline LaMotte down in South Carolina as Orry copes with one arm and grooms his cousin Charles. Twice, Orry visits his friend George Hazard up north at Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania, and the book painstakingly chronicles the entire journey up north from Orry's perspective (once with his sister Brett and later towards the very end making the journey by himself).

Although I enjoyed Charles' characterization in the very beginning as a reckless 7 year-old boy, I really disliked him the more he grew and the more the book focused on him. For instance, NORTH AND SOUTH spent a seemingly pointless 7 chapters (over 60 pages!) exclusively on Charles' adventures in Texas with the pernicious Captain Bent.
I found the entire ordeal with Charles and Bent in Texas pointless and exhausting. Even portions at the end seemingly about Billy Hazard and Brett involved Charles as he flies to the rescue at a rigged duel between Billy Hazard and Forbes LaMotte.

I also found much of the fictional plotting involving these two families ridiculous, convoluted and too soapy. It just seemed like these characters were stupid letting the antagonists repeatedly foment conflict and tension. For example, consider Virgilia Hazard's singular purpose in the novel: disrupt the delicate friendship between the Mains and Hazards. Repeatedly, Virgilia causes problems between the two families and yet idiotically, George Hazard seems to allow it every time. For example, Virgilia Hazard shows up every time Orry Main is visiting the Hazard home in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania, to provoke and antagonize. And George just allows it every time without taking any steps to at least isolate Virgilia when Orry is visiting. Earlier, George agrees to allow Virgilia to accompany the Hazards down south to the Main home despite knowing Virgilia's inflammatory and antagonistic disposition condemning all white Southerners and despite knowing her desire to
indiscriminately eradicate every single one of them. Dumb, on George's part. Later, when marriage to Billy seems finally possible, Brett Main rushes to share the news with her older, prettier sister Ashton Main first despite knowing from a very early age Ashton's avariciously ambitious nature. Why would you do that, Brett, when you're aware of Ashton's sick and twisted mind? At the end, I was frustrated by Orry's anemic response to Ashton's treachery. Orry simply gives Ashton a slap on the wrist and banishes her for from Mont Royal for a grievous offense which warranted a harsher comeuppance.

George & Orry's turbulent friendship represents a microcosm of the entire conflict over slavery and the events leading to the Civil War itself. When George asks Orry to allow a slave on the run to escape a likely death sentence, Orry seethes and reminds George -- a Northerner -- to stay out of the South's affairs.

Orry Main
: "Once before, I tried to explain the nature of things in the South. I told you we understand our own problems, our own needs, better than outsiders do. I told you we'd eventually solve those problems -- so long as outsiders didn't interfere...if you want us to continue to be friends, don't ever ask me to do something like that again."

[George] hoped Orry was right about the South's eventually solving its own problems. If the South did not, the rest of the nation would surely take action.


Juanita's Journal said...

NORTH AND SOUTH is one of my all time favorite novels. But I must admit that if there is one thing is suffers from . . . it is the heavier emphasis on the Southern characters, namely the Mains.

The Rush Blog said...

"For example, Virgilia Hazard shows up every time Orry Main is visiting the Hazard home in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania, to provoke and antagonize."

The first time occurred when COOPER MAIN visited the Hazards regarding his plans for a new steamer. Virgilia appeared again, when Orry and Brett visited in 1859. The last time Virgilia and Orry saw each other, Virgilia was staying with her family after war had been declared. She left, after summoning a lynch mob for him. She remained away from Lehigh Station for another four months.

Please try to be more specific, instead of using vague criticisms.

The Rush Blog said...

I find it ironic that the 1982 novel focused more on the Mains than it did on the Hazards.

Yet, the 1984 sequel, "LOVE AND WAR", seemed to focus more on the Hazards - especially George, Stanley and Virgilia's experiences in wartime Washington DC.