CHESAPEAKE by James A. Michener

CHESAPEAKE

A Novel

KIRKUS REVIEW

Without the frame or the focus that loosely held Centennial together, this massive but arbitrarily fragmented East-Coast community history--a Maryland island, 1583-1978--is almost devoid of traditional novelistic pleasure. The hundred or so characters are firmly presented as types (e.g., "Bartley Paxmore, at thirty-one, was the new-style Quaker"), most of them members of three representative families: the Catholic, landowning, upper-class progeny of Edmund Steed, who explored the Chesapeake with John Smith in 1608; the dumb but spirited lower-class progeny of Timothy Turlock, who came to Maryland as an indentured servant; and the steady, middle-class, shipbuilding progeny of Quaker Edmund Paxmore, who was dumped in Maryland in 1661 after extensive Massachusetts whippings. Over the years, these clans must deal with pirates, storms, incest, sexism (yes, many of the women here are unlikely feminists), bastards born of philandering, the Revolution (all three broods eventually join in, even the royalist Steeds), and--about half the book--the slavery question. The Turlocks are slimy slave traders, the Steeds are gentle slave owners, the Paxmores are fierce abolitionists, and--in a rather shameless lift from Roots--the Caters are slaves who are seen under the whip and under the covers, in Mandingo-style triangles ("You want to stay longer, honey?"). On to the Civil War (eight pages), the oyster-dredging business, and the 20th Century--which is reduced to three bizarrely selective vignettes: a Paxmore rescuing 40,000 Jews from Hitler, the desegregation struggle, and. . . Watergate, with another Paxmore committing suicide over his White House involvement. As fiction, then--shallow and sketchy throughout, with no theme (except "It's gone. It's all gone") to link or enrich the melodramatic episodes. Nor does all of Michener's digested research produce painless fact feasts: much reads like a junior-high text ("Three reasons accounted for this"); the guest appearances by such as Henry Clay and Geo. Washington ("Your deal, General") seem silly; and the dialectic debates on religion and slavery are dull. But on such matters as shipbuilding, oystering, duck-hunting, Jimmy the blue crab ("that delicious crustacean"), and Onk-or the goose, Michener is a grand popularizer of craft and science. That considerable gift, together with the immense Michener clout, is sure to send millions of readers plunging into what seems like a million blandly readable pages of humdrum history and formula fiction.
Pub Date: July 24th, 1978
ISBN: 0812970438
Page count: 896pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1978




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