by James A. Michener

Hardcover, 1978



In this classic novel, James A. Michener brings his grand epic tradition to bear on the four-hundred-year saga of America's Eastern Shore, from its Native American roots to the modern age. In the early 1600s, young Edmund Steed is desperate to escape religious persecution in England. After joining Captain John Smith on a harrowing journey across the Atlantic, Steed makes a life for himself in the New World, establishing a remarkable dynasty that parallels the emergence of America. Through the extraordinary tale of one man's dream, Michener tells intertwining stories of family and national heritage, introducing us along the way to Quakers, pirates, planters, slaves, abolitionists, and notorious politicians, all making their way through American history in the common pursuit of freedom.   Praise for Chesapeake   "Another of James Michener's great mines of narrative, character and lore."--The Wall Street Journal   "[A] marvelous panorama of history seen in the lives of symbolic people of the ages . . . an emotionally and intellectually appealing book."--The Atlanta Journal-Constitution   "Michener's most ambitious work of fiction in theme and scope."--The Philadelphia Inquirer   "Magnificently written . . . one of those rare novels that are enthusiastically passed from friend to friend."--Associated Press… (more)

Library's rating


½ (537 ratings; 4)

User reviews

LibraryThing member atimco
If there is a reward specially ordained for those who accomplish their literary missions, my sister will have hers. She, who became a Michener fan by sheer accident and the lack of any other reading material, has finally convinced me to tackle one of his books. It isn't just that he's forbiddingly
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long. By taking a nation or geographic area as the title of almost all his books, Michener almost scares off the fiction reader because he just sounds so academic, a dusty old scholar recounting the historical minutiae of his chosen site. But this isn't the case.

In Chesapeake, Michener creates multiple generations of fictional characters who settle in the Chesapeake Bay area. Their lives are constantly interconnected and undercut with tragedy, disappointment, and danger as well as the happier moments of marriages, births, and civic/economic achievements. They are not the real historical people of the area, but they certainly feel authentic. One thing I really appreciated is how Michener does not tweak his characters to make them more politically correct or more palatable/accessible for modern readers. They follow the conventions of their cultures, or if they do challenge them, they never do so outside a logical frame of reference for the period. For example, one plantation owner's wife, Rosalind, finds inspiration for what an ugly woman can achieve based on a passage from Shakespeare. She accepts her husband's unfaithfulness as a matter of course and finds purpose in other things.

Sometimes it seems that Michener is heavily biased; he writes much of the Protestant atrocities against Catholics, but never mentions the Catholic persecution of Protestants. As a historian he cannot be unaware of the facts. But perhaps this is because his narrative is dealing sympathetically with Catholic characters and in the Chesapeake Bay area, it was Catholics (and Quakers) who were suffering religious persecution. History is full of opinions! Michener does do a good job with portraying the plantation owners' view of their "peculiar institution," presenting their arguments fairly (though it's clear Michener disagrees with them, especially the genetic inferiority claim).

A lot of the book I found hard to read because of the graphic cruelties that take place. It seems every people group was capable of horrific acts against their enemies; we have Indians scraping the flesh off the limbs of live prisoners, down to the bone; colony officials ordering merciless, often fatal public whippings of both men and women; the vicious double standard for punishing female adulterers (but never male); pirate attacks, burnings, lootings, and child abuse. What's worse about it in a Michener book is that he makes you care about the characters who are suffering all these insanely cruel acts. You start wondering how it would be if it were you strapped to the cannon, quivering and bloody under the whip. Yes, I've been imagining that lately, thanks to Michener! But these things really happened... people are so evil. Chalk one up for human depravity.

But history isn't just a record of human sin; there are some brighter moments. There are many people of admirable character depicted in this novel, and it's fascinating to watch them grapple with the adverse, sometimes impossible conditions of their world and survive. And the bay itself never changes, that beautiful place of lakes and islands that captivates so many enterprising souls. From the humble Choptank Indians to the area's residents four centuries later dealing with the aftermath of Watergate, the diverse groups that make their home on the banks of the Chesapeake are colorful, vivid people who nevertheless are just passing through on their way to death. They do what they can to survive, they try to leave a mark on the land and the people that will follow them, but ultimately their lives are just a quick interlude in the larger story. The people come and go, but the land stays. The land is the thread that ties all the generations together, the unifying idea of the novel.

Even though Michener limits himself to one geographical area per novel, the scope is still massive and it's no wonder his books regularly clock in at over a thousand pages each. Many readers will not want to commit to that kind of read; I know I had some hesitation about it (how long is this going to take? and what if I hate it? will my sister weep if I dislike her literary hero Michener — and that dislike is amplified by the novel's length?). But I think it's healthy to tackle the big tomes as well as shorter reads; it is something of a discipline to stick with a long book and not let yourself become distracted with other shiny covers. Reading this novel was like sinking my teeth into meat. It takes some chewing!

While I don't see myself running out to buy more Michener books after this one, I'm glad I read this book and will probably pick up more of his novels as I see them secondhand. This is excellent historical fiction for those who are willing to invest deeply in their reading.
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LibraryThing member TheLoisLevel
I've lived within 50 miles of the Eastern Shore most of my life, albeit on the Virginia side (I actually lived in the City of Chesapeake, but that has little to do with the Bay). I've had this book on my shelf for years, but somehow I have to come to Japan to read it. Weird! I was riveted by this
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book up to the section just before the Civil War (Voyage 9 in the book), and then, for me, the book fell apart. The section on the Civil War seemed overworked, with the plantation wife having a wild affair with the captain of a slave ship. Although Michener manages to keep a narrative thread going through the characters in the first nine sections even though he deals with several families and several generations, the characters in the remainder of the book seemed only tangentially related to each other, and I found myself just not caring. It seems to have to do with the decline of the families after the Civil War, which Michener skirts, and the inclusion of a black family, the depiction of whom lacked a ring of authenticity to me. I think it Michener fails to address certain eccentricities of African-American life that I have heard about over the years: one, is that slaves and Indians married, and another is the tendency of whites to intermarry with freed blacks and slaves. Instead, Michener paints a picture of African-American life that seems politicized and generally Southern. The point of interest in the Eastern Shore is that it is different from the mainland from which it projects, and idea Michener loses in the latter sections of the book.
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LibraryThing member LibrarysCat
This book was one of my favorites by Michener. Beginning with the native American people in the Delaware area and continuing through the history of the area was very interesting. I also enjoyed the animal perspective!
LibraryThing member NativeRoses
An epic adventure that begins with Native Americans (The Delawares) and continues through pre-revolutionary America, through the Civil War, Industrial Revolution, and into modern times. Good character studies throughout. I particularly enjoyed the fascinating accounts of early boat building.
LibraryThing member dagwood
I read this while in mid-teens and it remains a favorite to this day! Michener really knows how to draw a reader into the time period and make them feel like they're part of the story. Very vivid, very life-like.
LibraryThing member ElTomaso
One of Michener's best epics, a history of the Chesapeake Bay area.
LibraryThing member countrylife
A sweeping saga, but the broom left too much unswept, with some stories getting smoother and more complete treatment than others. I enjoyed the story lines, though, and would have liked to read more complete versions of them, say in a serial. So much is covered here, it would have been impossible
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to do justice to every topic in one volume. Still, this novel seems a good introduction to the Chesapeake as a whole, its history and people, and left me wanting to read more about people who make their living from the water.

The book is sectioned into ‘Voyages’ in different time periods, with the chapters titled as shown. (In parentheses, some of the subjects covered in that chapter.)

Voyage One: 1583 – The River (local Indians – Susquehannocks, Nanticokes)
Voyage Two: 1608 – The Island (Captain John Smith, Catholicism)
Voyage Three: 1636 – The Marsh (hunters, ecology)
Voyage Four: 1661 – The Cliff (Quakerism, boatbuilders)
Voyage Five: 1701 – Rosalind’s Revenge (Pirates, plantation owners, Protestantism)
Voyage Six: 1773 – Three Patriots (corruption in church officials, stirrings of rebellion)
Voyage Seven: 1811 – The Duel (British navy, Susquehanna expedition)
Voyage Eight: 1822 – Widow’s Walk (geese, family business, wasted talent)
Voyage Nine: 1832 – The Slave-Breaker (slave issues)
Voyage Ten: 1837 – The Railroad (classes, groups, politics; iron horse & underground railroad)
Voyage Eleven: 1886 – The Watermen (storms, flood, crabs, oysters, water dogs)
Voyage Twelve: 1938 – Ordeal by Fire (ransoming Jews, race riots)
Voyage Thirteen: 1976 – Refuge (Watergate, returning home)
Voyage Fourteen: 1978 (storm, erosion, death)

Overall, a bit dated, but an interesting read.
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LibraryThing member santhony
Typical Michener effort. Not up to the standard of some of his best, but pretty good nonetheless.
LibraryThing member stevetempo
Another great one by Michener. A beautiful mix of points of view and interrelationships within the dynamics of time. One of the most enjoyable primers into an geographical area I've enjoyed. I look forward to reading another by him very soon.
LibraryThing member skraft001
Read this book maybe 30 years ago and it was one that stuck with me over all this time. I remember it being a tough read -- but so worth staying with it
LibraryThing member Jared_Runck
"The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed" (Genesis 2:8, NKJV).

In the past, I haven't taken time to review much fiction, largely because I don't feel that qualified to discuss the relative distinctions and values between this author's command of
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character and that author's use of description. I'm a theologian...not a literary critic.

So, why take the time now to review this book by this author? It isn't the first I've read by this author (that would be "Alaska"), nor is it the best (that would be "The Source"). What made this book different is that I think I've finally hit upon WHY I like Michener so much: It is his fine sense of place. More than any other novelist I've read, Michener recognizes that human beings are "beings IN PLACE"...that the environment in which we grow up has a profound impact on who we are as people. So Michener can interweave discussions some of the most intricate descriptions of geological formation, the migratory and mating patterns of Canadian geese, and the detrimental effects of freshwater flooding on oyster beds with the lives and fortunes of generations of families on the Eastern Shore in ways that are actually important. They don't stagnate the story...the enrich and enliven it.

I would agree with other reviews I've read that Michener is something of an acquired taste; he's not necessarily an easy author (not least for the fact that each novel approaches the 1000-page mark with regularity), and I could easily see how some could hate the "novellas in serial" feel. However, if you recognize the PLACE where those stories occur as the "heroic character" in ALL the stories, I think you've hit upon a key to appreciating Michener's art. For in the unfolding of the story of 400 years of history of Chesapeake's Eastern Shore, Michener also unfolds a rich history of the "North" and "South," of black and white Americans, of industry and agriculture...of just about every dichotomy that governs American reality up to the present day.

This work of Michener's, like "Alaska" and, I presume like "Texas" and "Hawaii" and "Centennial" which are high on my "To Read" list, reveals in compelling detail what it means to be "American" precisely because of Michener's steadfast reminding that "America" was first of all a place before it was a people.
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LibraryThing member MaryEvelynLS
This was one of the greatest books I have ever read. EVER!! It's a long novel but worth every well written page. I would like to add that if one is not a fan of history, then this is probably not the book for you. However, history is added to the story so that the story can be told. There are many
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stories that unfold in this James Michener classic based on North Eastern America historical events and fictional characters that leap off the page.

Chesapeake begins around 1583, in the surrounding area of Chesapeake Bay and it's many tributaries and the unsettled Eastern shore of Maryland. The story is told in 14 voyages that find their way down this bay area, either from small tributaries or the Atlantic. The voyages take place from 1538 to 1978 and each voyage telling it's own story and adding to the history of the previous voyages as the Eastern shore grows and establishes towns, communities and the many lives that settle along these shores.
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LibraryThing member paulhock
This is the book that got me hooked on Michener. If you don't mind historical detail woven into a story than he is an author you should read. I believe I walked away from this one with a recipe for Clam Chowder and the urge to read more. I eventually dread all his books and he certainly influenced
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my own writing.
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LibraryThing member rodweston
Great historical fiction. Wonderful way to learn history.
LibraryThing member jakjonsun
The most rewarding part of reading Michener -- and in particular Chesapeake -- are the final chapters. This is where the author beautifully reminds us of all layers of history that had been covered. We discover again the heroism of Eden Cater through her memoirs. We hear again of the piratical
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exploits of the Turlocks through the Turlock Real Estate marketing campaign. This is where the essence of history is captured: through its remembrance. And we recall all those moments which we were witnessed to and now can see from a modern perspective.

Chesapeake is a great book. It covers all the various strains of society through four or five families, each evolving through the challenges and opportunities life, along the Choptank, had to offer.
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LibraryThing member kaulsu
I read _Chesapeake_ when it was originally published way back in 1978. I read it mainly because I live in Maryland and thought I should know a little bit of Bay history.

I had no idea at the time that Michener was a Quaker, or that Quakers particularly still existed (although I did know Sidwell
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Friends School was a few blocks from my in-law's). I read it pretty quickly, skimming over the parts that I found boring. The main thing I retained were the conversations about Quaker worship...though what I remembered seemed to have been largely in my own imagination!!

Now, thirty years later, I took a copy with me on a family cruise to the Caribbean. How much of our early history was right there on the islands we visited! Who knew Michener's writings would be so much more personal?

It is difficult to understand that even as recently as the late 70s there was such segregation on the Eastern Shore. My consciousness was raised in so many ways during the reading of this book, this time around. This time, I didn't skim the parts that were not as interesting. Instead, I allowed myself a few breaks from the story. After all, if it spanned 400+ years, I could take a month to read it!!

Oh yes, I suppose I should disclose that I became a Quaker in the 1990s! The Lord works in mysterious ways...?
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Random House, Inc. (1978), 865 pages

Original publication date





0-394-50202-7 / 9780394502021
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