Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Several Adventure Stories in One

"Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries."

James Michener
Chesapeake (1978)

I think I have mentioned here before that my father was a religion and philosophy professor when I was growing up.

I don't know when he was first exposed to the works of James Michener, perhaps before I was born.

That isn't really important, I guess. The point is that Michener made quite an impression on my father, so much of an impression that he used one of Michener's novels ("The Source") as a text in his classes.

The book followed a pattern that surely is familiar to those who have read Michener's works before. It told the story of the generations of a family in the Holy Land, going back to the Stone Age, through artifacts that were uncovered by modern–day archaeologists.

I saw that book on a shelf in my father's study when I was a child, and, when I was in high school, I read it. And I discovered, when I read it (although I could tell just from looking at the copy on my father's shelf), just how wordy it was.

That's a characteristic of most of Michener's works. You have to make a real commitment to reading them. Most are more than 1,000 pages. That can be pretty daunting — but my experience is that it often makes for a rewarding read.

(Recently, I loaned my paperback copy of Michener's book "Space" to my father. I observed that, by Michener's standards, "Space" — at 805 pages — is practically a short story.)

After reading "The Source," I read Michener's book "Centennial," which followed a similar pattern. It told a more domestic tale about an area of Colorado, beginning with the dinosaurs who inhabited it millions of years ago, followed by the Indians who lived there and the settlers who replaced them. I was even more engrossed in it than I was in "The Source."

So it was with great excitement that I read "Chesapeake," which was published 35 years ago today.

"Chesapeake" was set on the East Coast and told the story of the people who lived there over a period of roughly four centuries. No dinosaurs in this one, but there were fascinating accounts of Indians, settlers, slavery, the tobacco trade, pirates, wars. It was like several adventure stories rolled into one, much like the other Michener works I had read.

There were some clear themes in "Chesapeake" that were mostly told in the stories of various families. Unlike "The Source" — more like "Centennial," actually — the book didn't really tell the stories of generations of the same family but of different families. Some were devoutly religious, some were poor, some were slaves, and Michener explored each theme as completely as he could.

People often look for something to read in the summer. Usually, they want something light and breezy, something they can read on the beach or in a park. I wouldn't classify anything Michener ever wrote as "light and breezy," but I would still heartily recommend "Chesapeake" to anyone.