Sunday, November 4, 2007

Love and War, by John Jakes [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Jakes' American Civil War trilogy
1. North and South (***)
2. Love and War (*)
3. Heaven and Hell (skip, LOVE AND WAR hammered the nail in the coffin on this series)

George Hazard: "Lincoln and the cabinet and Congress all pushed [General] McDowell [towards the loss at the first Bull Run]. They forced him to send poorly trained amateurs into battle. The volunteers failed to behave like regulars, and McDowell's been punished for it -- by Lincoln and the cabinet and Congress."

"Ah," [Constance] murmured. "The first girl on the President's card proved clumsy, so he's changing partners."

"Changing partners. That says it very well...I wonder how many times he'll do it before the ball is over?" {George comparing the shifting of Union generals-in-chief in the Civil War to girls on President Lincoln's card in a ball}

Although I enjoyed the scant references to Sam Grant in this novel and flimsy glimpses of battle warfare and strategy of the American Civil War (almost nonexistent), I absolutely hated the overwhelming focus on Charles Main and disliked the prodigious exhibition of northern corruption and northern barbarity. Yes we get it, northerners are just as bad as southerners if not more in terms of their attitude towards people of color during this time period. Northerners' collective and indiscriminate zealotry towards all white southerners and colored people makes them worse. As the end of the war nears, the book singles out strained northern white/black relations marked by racism while highlighting improved southern white/black relations (the Mont Royal overseer Philemon Meek and Andy, for example). All of the characters' thoughts (especially George, Orry, Billy and Brett) spew repetitious, preachy drivel as if we didn't get enough of that in NORTH AND SOUTH (***). Don't get me started on Yankee-killing Machine Charles Main, I hated him towards the end of NORTH AND SOUTH (***) and it doesn't get any better here. Despite Charles' losses in this novel, he sure lives a charmed life always flying to everyone's rescue and charging in and out of forays with nary a wound or scrape to show for it. Unfortunately, Billy and Brett's plots here (the only two characters that seemed 'real' to me) involved plenty of preachy moralizing about slavery and racism. The two characters that least needed moral lessons on racism -- Billy and Brett -- received it incessantly. And Charles flying to a worthless Billy's rescue again and again and again and again was ... too much. Want to show off Charles' indestructible talents? Oh let's just have Billy get captured (again) or his love interest in trouble so Charles can save them (again). Billy gets tortured and beat up and wounded while Charles Main rides around like a godlike cowboy killing Yankees, killing villains (Cuffey) and beating everyone up without a scratch to show for it. Mont Royal, Cooper and his family in danger? No problem, here comes Charles to the rescue!

What a horrible book. Detailed? Sure. Wearisomely melodramatic? Absolutely. Although settings were stronger in this novel (compared to NORTH AND SOUTH), I can't say I liked the foggy prose in this one. I'm reading and reading and reading and it just seems like very little happens other than endless preachy moralizing and Charles-to-the-rescue histrionics. Conveniently, all of the antagonists (Ashton, Virgilia, Bent) survive for the next book. I hear HEAVEN AND HELL centers even more on Charles Main. Uhm ya, thanks but no thanks. Let's just say I only read this for references to factual events and people during the war (especially Sam Grant). I also enjoyed the technology noted by the novel: the repeating gun Spencer capable of firing many rounds in a short amount of time, and steam engines.

"Our keen-minded Southern journalists scorn [Sam Grant] for being round-shouldered and slovenly. Really important considerations, eh? ... Three years ago, Ewell said there was an obscure West Point man somewhere in Missouri whom he hoped the Yankees would never discover. He said he feared him more than all the others put together."

Clearly a prelude to LOVE AND WAR, the disproportionate focus on Charles Main in NORTH AND SOUTH adumbrates the unmistakable hero of this entire Civil War trilogy including this particular 1,078-page paperback. All well and good if you like the Charles-Main character but I found the imbalanced emphasis on Charles Main and his invulnerability in this bloated book unbearable. Especially since I savored every token passage on Billy and Brett while hoping for more. Billy and Brett seemed like the only realistic characters to me, and all the other fictional characters were larger-than-life and/or way over-the-top. I actually preferred Ashton and Bent's treacherously episodic scheming to the adventures of godlike, indestructible Charles Main. Long, protracted pages from Charles Main's perspective embodies the love and war in this novel while Billy and Brett receive forgettable treatment. Billy writes in his journal mostly about racial issues while Brett learns compassion and affection for colored people. Even when there is plotting with Billy, it's usually interspersed with Charles' goings-on and/or includes Charles in a significant, life-saving manner. The battle at Shiloh is sort of brushed off from Bent's perspective even though it's recognized as one of Grant's ingenious saves while Jakes assiduously details Lee's genius at the battle at Antietam (Sharpsburg) from a day-to-day basis completely from Charles' perspective. I was wondering what Billy was doing during the battle at Sharpsburg the entire time Jakes glorifies Lee, Stonewall Jackson and our fictional hero Charles Main. Following a 20-page account of Antietam exclusively from Charles' perspective we have Billy's 2-page postmortem. Just to fill up space and unable to find any storyline for Billy, the book makes Billy think of Charles "often" (p.426). Similar to Antietam, we have Gettysburg entirely from Charles' perspective which again left me wondering why Jakes couldn't give Billy some meaningful storyline.

I thought Jakes should have stationed Billy out on the western theater closer to Grant. With Shiloh, Vicksburg and the Third Battle of Chattanooga, Grant was phenomenal over there. The Third Battle of Chattanooga actually showcased Grant's chief engineer William F. "Baldy" Smith in a key strategic move known as the "Cracker Line." And Billy was an engineer! Very poor creativity from Jakes on Billy's entire storyline in this novel. A novel which serves one purpose and one purpose alone: glorifying Charles Main.

Apparently, the only storyline suitable for Billy in this book: getting tortured at Libby Prison in Richmond after he's captured and then bumming around for Charles Main to fly to his rescue again (like towards the end of NORTH AND SOUTH). At the end of the ordeal, Billy records the lesson he learned in an improvised journal. "I at last understand how the enslaved negro feels. I have dwelt a while in the soul of a shackled black man and take a little of it into my own forever." Not only is the lesson completely unnecessary after all the sermonizing introspection (from so many characters) and various discussions over the issue of slavery, but the recipient of this particular torturous lesson (Billy) was already sympathetic towards slaves and already against the institution of slavery. So what's the point of all these pages showing Billy beat up and tortured? I guess I missed the boat on that one other than to underscore more of the same, invulnerable Charles-to-the-rescue antics. I also don't understand why Orry needs Charles to do anything about Billy's imprisonment. Orry waits for weeks for Charles to help him rescue Billy. It's like no one can get anything done in this series unless Charles Main is the one to do it. The book tries to show a "friendship" between Charles Main and Billy Hazard, but it's handled extremely poorly because of the attention this series bestows on the character of Charles Main. There's no equal ground in this "friendship" it's all Charles, he's smarter, stronger, taller, tougher, faster, he's in a world of his own.

After Billy returns to service, the book uses him in a episodic plot device: a potential candidate for the death of a major character. Unlike Charles Main, we're constantly afraid for the life of the weak and inept Billy Hazard. Constance's premonition about the war leaving a widow amongst Brett, Madeline and herself, and then Brett's attraction for the handsome negro Scipio Brown all appear to foreshadow Billy's death. Billy is the perfect worthless character for this anecdotal plot device.

Never did I believe Charles would die, and of course I was right. Charles is too wishy-washy: he's itching for a fight one minute, he's disillusioned by war the next (yet he still wants to fight); he's gentlemanly, oh wait, no he's not; he's in love with Augusta Barclay, but he doesn't want to start something in the middle of a war (goes back and forth on the love with "Gus" a few times). And of course, our Yankee-killing Machine escapes everything unscathed while oftentimes rescuing his inept friends like Billy Hazard (just like in NORTH AND SOUTH). It was a little ludicrous that a confrontation between Yankees having the new rapid-fire Spencer gun against Charles' group resulted in 4 Yankee deaths and yet Charles and his entire group escaped without a scratch. What the hell was the gun shooting at?! It seemed like Jakes took the best parts of George and Orry and fused them into Charles's character: George's easy ways with the women, George's competence at soldiering and fighting, Orry's tall, aristocratic and handsome countenance, Orry's desire to fight and be a soldier. And of course we also have both Orry & George's disillusionment with war imbued hundred-fold in Charles' protracted musings. And yet even following these melancholy soliloquies about the brutal realities of war, Charles always exalts in war and fighting. For example, he loses his friend O'Dell in Texas from the last novel and more than once the book noted how he no longer considers war all that glorious. And yet, we have him itching for a fight later. Here, after he loses his friend Ambrose and he's separated from his love interest Gus, it's just endless pages of wishy-washy introspection. I understand the complexities of human nature especially during a time of war, but I just couldn't abide the resounding and protracted fictional plots dealing with Charles which more or less symbolized the love and war in LOVE AND WAR. Even the finale featured more Charles-Main melodramatic nonsense as he rushes to catch a train and hurdling every possible obstacle Jakes can throw his way. Finally, he just pulls a gun on the train's conductor.

Since we know which side ends up winning the war and we understand the grave crimes the country perpetuated for so long in retrospect (slavery), Jakes compensates for this by delineating the north's perfidious rancor and the south's refined kindness. After checking in on Charles, we immediately turn to the crooked Col. Bent and the corrupt Secretary of War Simon Cameron. From Billy Hazard's consternation that a colored man wouldn't step aside to let him pass on a sidewalk, we're privy to northern hypocrisy as well: they want to free slaves, yet still considered blacks beneath them. When Billy's southern wife Brett travels out to Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania, for thread in a store, she's harassed for simply being a southerner. Later, when Brett visits Billy in Washington, they discuss how northerners aren't really fighting for the blacks or to free them, but rather for crushing the upstart traitors who defected. This idea that the north is for the war against the south, but against blacks, surfaces again when Constance attempts to build a shelter for black children in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania. "The North was no pristine fount of morality," Constance thinks.

Even all the characters on both sides of the army compel the reader to sympathize and cheer the south while hating northerners. For example, most of the southern army around Charles Main are good men, even aristocrats like Ambrose (Jakes only shows the foreign southern officer von Helm in a negative light). On the other hand, Jakes meticulously shows northern officers who rub the wrong way: the early generals-in-chief (McDowell, McLellan, Burnside), Ripley, and the gaudy Lt. Custer with Billy's army. Let's not forget the ext Following Lincoln's emancipation proclamation, we should have guessed the book would turn its attentions to the resentful Union soldiers (p.427). Furthermore, the book notes how bigoted white northerners beat "contraband" blacks and blacks in the army following the emancipation proclamation. By contrast, Madeline symbolizes compassionate white southerners educating their slaves (through Jane). Though Jakes accurately portrays the north's hypocrisy, I thought the entire notion was drummed out too much in too many different ways. When we finally do shift our attentions down south, it's to highlight how cruel some of the slaves treat each other (Cuffey) and how kind slave owners like Orry Main sponsor a slave's personal growth (Andy). While Virgilia dreams of indiscriminately obliterating good southern whites, we constantly see evidence of righteous vengeance visited on the north (Charles killing another two crooked Yanks when he conveniently arrives
just in time to save Gus and escape with nary a scratch!). Out of the blue, the Mains' old overseer Salem Jones shows up amongst a mob in New York City rioting and indifferently killing (burning) colored people following a federal conscription fiat. Down south, we see the honorable southern officer John Mosby saving Billy. From a reader's standpoint, the book never misses a chance to denigrate all northern whites while exalting southerners like Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson. Poor Billy, he's a weakling good for little else in this novel other than writing in his journal and getting captured.

This series' bottom line? North = corrupt, bigoted and inept, South = honorable, empathic and brilliant.

Jakes depicts an abrasively bilious anti-southern attitude pervading the north and overshadowing the Yankee animosity and slave cruelty from the south. From Orry's trips to George's home in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania, through northern states in NORTH AND SOUTH, it's clear there's a generalized hatred for the south and all its white folk regardless of whether they own slaves or treat them poorly. When Billy ventures out to the city of Charleston, South Carolina, in NORTH AND SOUTH, he encounters some thugs and assumes they hate all northerners. But not so, Ashton and her husband Huntoon specifically hired those ruffians to eliminate Billy. The Hazards don't encounter nearly the blind prejudice against them in the south as the Mains deal with in the North.

A lot of preachy moralizing and Charles-Main-to-the-rescue theatrics comprises the bulk of this hefty 1,078-page paperback LOVE AND WAR. If you're down with that, dig in!

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