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Unputdownable albeit anecdotal (and too much Charles Main)
on October 30, 2007
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?