You are a history buff, something I most certainly am not. I’d like to think that I could pick up a huge book about the beginnings of America and read it without getting tired or bored. However, I should not kid myself. I have always struggled with history. Then again, I’ve struggled with most subjects learned in school. Now that I am out of school, I wish I had school back. Funny how that works.
We studied the Civil War in 8th grade and it was a subject that fascinated me. I can’t quite say why it took hold of me the way it did. I remember how engrossed I became during History and English classes, while we studied Civil War literature and went over details about famous battles. Our 8th grade trip to Gettysburg is among my favorite middle school memories (in the sense that I remember loving it and having a fun time but have no memory of the actual day). I loved learning about the Civil War so much that I actually wrote some of my own stories about the era, though they are long gone to the trash by now.
Since that time, I have always wanted to learn more about the Civil War. Even though I took an interest in it I hardly remember anything I actually learned in school. Although I’ve had this desire to read Civil War books, it never seemed the right time to read any Civil War books. There were always other books I wanted to read instead. Plus, they all seem to be the same, right? At least that has been my experience. Novels based around the Civil War all sound alike on the back cover. I wanted to read a genuinely good and unique book.
So I did some research and came across John Jakes North and South trilogy. One reader on Goodreads said that the book was the Game of Thrones of Civil War novels. Being a Game of Thrones lover, this description appealed to me greatly. I added it to my list and a short time later, I added it to my lineup for A Year of Big Books. It seemed to be the perfect time to finally read one of these mammoths!
Coming from the defeat of Infinite Jest, picking up this book actually excited me. I was ready for some good old fashioned narrative. My copy of the book is a mass market paperback that feels so good to hold in my hands. I love folding the book and bending the spine. Now you know some more of my many book fetishes.
There is a lot of content packed into these 42 chapters and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed as to how I want to tackle talking about them without making this blog super long. I guess the best way to handle this is to just build off of the few notes that I have taken…
I can see why some believe this to be the Game of Thrones of Civil War novels but I have to insist that while it slightly takes on the same style in terms of various different characters with different motives and a long book length, I disagree with the idea that this book is in any way similar to the fantasy saga.
Time moves really quickly in this book, spanning for several years. There is talk of politics but we aren’t at the heart of it. Any mention seems to depend on our knowledge of the past by the form of name drops and familiar opinions. History is not fleshed out and layered in the same way Thrones is, nor does this book take on several trains of thought. I mean, it tries to do this but in my opinion the execution counters what the characters are doing and saying. And I also believe the symbolism of the narrative is much more obvious than Thrones.
The novel revolves around two families – the Hazards from the North and the Mains from the South. They are connected because their sons (Orry Main and George Hazard) attended West Point Military Academy together and they become fast friends even though they come from different cultures and have differing opinions on slavery.
Say, are these two families going to symbolize the war that is about to come and somehow humanize both sides? Is that it? Is it? …I mean, I don’t have the answer to that question yet but I think it is safe to say that that is what is happening in this book.
Despite the on the nose symbolism, I am finding myself very much enraptured by this book. The day I started reading it, the sun was out and we opened the windows so that fresh air was flowing through the house. The sound of a lawn mower could be heard from the neighbors house across the street. The book does a great job describing the environment these characters inhabit. I think I should take lessons from John Jakes because he really knows how to describe seasons in a way I’ve always aspired but never accomplished.
It is hard not to notice the similarities between this era of history and today. Or at least, this book is presented in a way that can only be compared to today’s shenanigans. Like, it is kind of scary how this could be a modern day story. Just change a few details and you have a conflict that is almost identical to the one we are going through in our politics today. Obviously slavery is not an issue but rather the issue of race and racial tensions in America. The idea of black uprisings is talked about a lot in this book, something many people seem to fear in today’s world…people of color having a voice.
One thing I’m frustrated by thus far is the book’s inability to take an objective stance. Jakes tries so hard but his execution does him little favors. He gives us characters with different opinions but then they all seem pretty much the same after a while and lukewarm on issues. Like, George believes slavery is wrong but he hates when people call out his friend Orry for owning slaves because he doesn’t want to hurt their friendship. Ahh, boo whooo. Dude, this isn’t an issue that Orry loves the band that you hate and collects all their albums. This is a legitimate issue of human life. Stop all this wishy washy stuff and take a stance or none at all.
If someone has extreme opinions, they are put in a bad light. The best example of this is a character named Virgilia, who starts out as a passionate character but is basically described as a woman who can’t get a man so turns to a cause to fill the void. Really book? A woman only takes an interest in civil rights because she doesn’t have a man? As the book continues she does become unbearable but not for the reasons I think the book wants us to believe.
I would forgive the book had there been one female character who was similar but there isn’t. Either we have women with strong beliefs but she doesn’t speak up or women who take no interest in political issues. Only is the woman who has strong beliefs condemned. It is really harsh. I’m having a hard time with it.
But to move away from being too harsh, as I said earlier I am actually really enjoying the book despite this one issue. I really like how the characters actually have growth. There is a clear difference in who they are 500 pages in vs. at page 100. And the story is overall very interesting. I like the problems the characters face on a day to day basis and I like the history that overflows from these minor problems. The book certainly does its job of humanizing this point in history.
At this point, I’m just anxious for the Civil War to actually start. This novel is basically the build up, from what I gather, and the following book will be the war itself. My mindset at the moment is thinking this book will be my favorite of the year so far though I don’t think it will be hard for another book to overtake it.
In other news, I should have been finished this book yesterday so I will be reading my ass of tonight, tomorrow, and Friday. Good luck to me!
Until next time, friend. Danielle.