The four-hundred-year saga of America's Eastern Shore, from its Native American roots to the present. The central scene of Michener's historical novel is that section of Maryland's Eastern shore, hardly more than 10 miles square. To this point come the founders of families that will dominate the story. A panoramic narrative of human and animal life on Maryland's Eastern Shore focuses on a ten-square-mile area at the mouth of the Choptank River and the families that settle there, from 1583 to the present.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
I had no idea at the time that Michener was a Quaker, or that Quakers particularly still existed (although I did know Sidwell 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...?