James Michener wrote long books that featured places. In Chesapeake, his 12th novel, he
focused on a coastal island of Maryland and its surrounding areas over
more than four centuries. The main characters are from succeeding
generations of three fictitious families that settled there. The
upper-class Steeds immigrated from England to be free to practice their
Catholic religion; they become wealthy landowners who own hundreds of
slaves. The Paxmores are Quakers, gentle and consistently abolitionist;
they make their fortune in shipbuilding. The coarse, irascible Turlocks
live in the wetlands and eek out their living by legal or illegal
means. Introduced later are the Caters, blacks who escape from slavery,
and their progeny.
As usual, Michener did extensive research, and he educates readers on both US historical events and such regional concerns as shipbuilding, oystering, and duck hunting. As he approaches modern times, some of his topic choices seem bizarre — such as one character’s getting access to Hitler to plead for the Jews, and another’s involvement in Watergate. Nevertheless, this or any Michener novel is a good choice for people who enjoy learning history through stories. Those who aren’t particularly interested in the Chesapeake Bay will still find plenty of US history in Chesapeake, especially involving the long struggle over slavery.
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