Two strangers, young men from Pennsylvania and South Carolina, meet on the way to West Point. Thus begins this novel of antebellum America, spanning three generations and chronicling the lives and loves of two great family dynasties. The Hazards and the Mains are brought together in bonds of friendship and affection that neither jealousy nor violence can shatter -- until a storm of events sunders the nation and brings the cataclysm of war.
My main problem with Jakes' North and South is the unnecessary length - this is only the first instalment of three novels, covering twenty years of fictional and national developments leading up to the start of the war, and yet the run-up requires 800 pages? Jakes does a fine job of cramming the text with historical research, but he also wastes space by explaining what more skilful authors can convey with dialogue and imagery. Show not tell, Mr Jakes. My other complaint is that the characters, especially the 'villains', are a tad too obvious, like the narrative. Captain Bent and Ashton Main, in particular, spend the greater part of the novel bearing grudges that would crush mere mortals, and over nothing much to start with. Confrontations and duels pepper the story, but the outcome is always predictable.
Construction and caricatures aside, I actually enjoyed reading much of this great doorstop of a history lesson. Yes, a lot of the subplots devolve into soap opera, but also Jakes manages to present both sides fairly and instructively - the power and arrogance of the north, and the tradition and fear of the south. George and Orry, and Charles and Billy, are likeable, yet convincing in their respective attitudes to the issues of abolition and slavery, union and secession. I have learned a lot about a time and place in history that I knew little or nothing about, for which I am grateful to the author - but I don't know if I have the strength to tackle Jakes' second novel just yet!
While I did enjoy seeing these beloved characters go on different adventures, the writing was disappointingly mediocre. It's one of the few stories that seems to be told better in the film version.
It features two friends who met at West Point and their families. They are on opposite sides of the war. Also a TV miniseries starring Patrick Swayze. John Jakes also wrote the "Kent Family Chronicles". I love anything by this author.
One of the books I picked up last time was John Jakes' North and South. After I finished it, I found out that it was the first of a trilogy. So I picked up the rest of the books at the library (yay library!). All together they came to over 2,200 pages.
John Jakes has written science fiction as well as quite of few of those massive tree-killing multi-volume sagas telling the story of a family from the day it evolved from slime mold to the day its eldest son becomes King of the Universe (sorry, I just channeled a bit of National Lampoon's Newspaper Parody). He's not a bad SF writer, although most of his genre fiction came earlier in his career; I imagine that when he found out how much dough he could rake in with those historical megabooks, he found it difficult to write good old low-paying SF. But he wasn't a bad writer.
The North and South series wasn't bad. It killed a week or two of spare time. But I do have a couple of reactions:
1. I am an abused reader. I'm not kidding. The novels are set before, during, and after the Civil War. There's some pretty rough stuff in them. When I reached the first scene of semi-torture, I found myself tightening up. Feeling almost panicked...almost disgusted. Why? Because I'd recently been exposed to the torture-porn book Chung Kuo by the despicable David Wingrove. I feel as if Wingrove tried to rape me, mentally, and now there's part of me that fears that each new book, each new author, will do the same.
John Jakes is an older-school author, of course, so he didn't get too graphic. And what torture there was, was less horrible because unlike the obviously mentally ill David Wingrove, Jakes didn't glory in the torture. I swear, Wingrove probably manually gratified himself over some of the filth that he wrote.
Good heavens. I didn't realize I'd be getting so extreme in this review. I honestly do feel as if I've been abused...I'm enraged at the mere memory of Chung Kuo.
At one point, the worst bad guy in North and South - a psycho - kills the wife of one of the protagonists. He cut her throat with a razor and uses her blood to write his name on her mirror, so her husband will know who did it. My reaction to reading that? "Thank god he didn't rape or torture her." That's what Chung Kuo did to me; made me grateful when a sympathetic character is only MURDERED!
2. John Jakes didn't play fair with the reader. In the first book, he introduces a sympathetic character, Cooper Main; he's the older brother of one of the main protagonists. He's a southerner, but an extremely progressive and enlightened one. He opposes slavery, arguing bitterly with his father over the issue. His story is told in the second-person, but we get into his head enough to see that he is honestly sickened by slavery, and is highly intelligent and forward-looking.
When the war starts he is saddened, but surprised by a feeling of love for his home state. He takes a role in the Confederacy's navel research department, but it is soon clear that he doesn't believe that victory is possible, and that the war is a tragic mistake. Eventually he marries, and has two children. Then his son is exploded and drowned while they are attempting to run a Yankee blockage.
The character goes insane. He becomes hateful, obsessed with vengeance, spending day and night trying to build new weapons "to kill Yankees". He verbally and emotionally abuses his wife and daughter, and strikes his wife. This is all the more difficult to read because the story of how he met and courted his wife was quite a romantic story.
This behavioral change is consistent with PTSD, of course. It seems a bit extreme, even so, but I'll allow for a bit of artistic license. But Jakes didn't leave it there. The character got worse and worse, until I had to wonder why the hell his wife didn't leave him. Jakes was bending the plot so far that it was in danger of breaking! And then the character himself had a total breakdown, went insane, and suddenly came back to his senses. He was his old self, but changed: he now believed that peace was all-important, and declared that he was leaving the war department and returning to his ancestral estate to help sow the seeds of peace and reconciliation. It's clear that equality for the soon-to-be former slaves is part of what he planned.
But between the end of the second novel and the beginning of the third, the character apparently underwent a complete rewrite. No longer devoted to peace, he became a ranting, close-minded bigot and ally of the Ku Klux Klan - a pure villain. There was no explanation, no evolution of the character, just a sudden, massive change which Jakes pretended wasn't much of a change at all.
It was like "BOOM! I had a bad bowel movement. Now I'm an evil Southerner again!". Totally ridiculous and unfair to the reader. I can only guess that Jakes felt he was running low on antagonists, so he had to quickly convert a sympathetic character into an antagonist.
That was annoying AND clumsy, Mr. Jakes. Did you think the readers wouldn't notice?
I can't really recommend the series. If I ever read it again, it could only be out of desperation. Say, if almost every other book I own somehow disappeared...and the TV was broken...and the internet was down...and the library was closed.
Come to think of it, my computer would have to be broken as well. And my family would have had to lose the ability to speak or play boardgames. And the phone would need to be down as well.
It wasn't an awful series, but it wasn't very good. John Jakes can (and has) done much better.
Part history, part novel, this book chronicles two great American dynasties over three generations. Though brought together in a friendship that neither jealousy nor violence could shatter, the Hazards and the Mains are torn apart by the storm of events that has divided the nation.
I did read ahead on Wikipedia, which I rarely do, and the direction the author takes in future books did not sit well with me. So what with life being too short...