North and South

I discovered John Jakes all the way back in high school when my American history teacher assigned The Bastard as summer reading.  That was the summer I turned 16.  I was so titillated by the racy title of this first book in the Kent Family Chronicles that I couldn’t read it fast enough.  I devoured the series like a kid on a Harry Potter marathon binge, like a lonely housewife huffing 50 Shades on the sly. 

That was also the year I discovered Patrick Swayze.  Sure, he was awesome as the Wolverines’ leader in Red Dawn and absolutely iconic when he pulled Baby out of that corner, but he will forever and always be Orry Main in my heart.  Orry Main, the southern protagonist of North and South broods like a Byronic poster boy.  I recently re-watched a bit of the miniseries.  The fake accents were even worse than I remembered, but the star-studded cast making their break into the film industry (or their exit) was indeed a treat.

North and South is a sweeping epic that gravitates around two prominent families: the Mains, South Carolina rice barons; and the Hazards, Pennsylvania iron moguls.  The two families are united by a friendship forged at West Point and tempered by action in the Mexican War.  The tension in the novel hinges upon dramatic irony.  Readers keep turning pages to see if the characters’ relationships disintegrate as surely as the political climate that would eventually lead to the War Between the States.

Spliced into the story are vignettes of actual historical figures.  Although the two families themselves are fictitious, they operate in a world carefully researched and brimming with the sociopolitical culture of the era.  The fiction meshes so seamlessly with the nonfiction that you hardly notice the history lessons.  The book, like all great historical fiction, creates an immersive experience for the reader.  I frequently found myself “off-page”, imagining how I would interact with the characters.  If that’s not a ringing endorsement for Jakes’ prowess as an author, I don’t know what is!

As a teen, I fantasized about which character I should marry.  Orry was the picture of a southern gentleman…on the outside, and being a girl from Alabama, I knew he would be the “proper” choice. There was something about George, though, that I found appealing.  Maybe it was his quick-witted practicality.   Reading North and South some decades later, I think it’s safe to admit that I am totally on Team George.   Y’all can have your Heathcliffs, and Orry is about as Heathcliff as they come!

The antagonists in the novel are much better written than they were portrayed in the miniseries.  Jakes does an excellent job of giving dimension to Bent, Justin, Ashton, and Virgilia. The windows into their minds show multiple levels of human frailty, the poisonous nature of vengeance, and the depths to which depravity can plunge.   Each of these characters is uniquely and believably rounded.

Overall, I found this second trip through North and South to be informative and highly entertaining.  The historical facts and depictions rarely became cumbersome.  The fictional characters and situations never felt pigeon-holed or forced as they functioned within that scope of time.  Although the book is expansive, it does not lumber.  The narrative is easy to follow, easy to manage in small chunks, and provides a glimpse into 19th century America.  Jakes weaves a believable tale of action, romance, politics, and culture as we follow the Mains and Hazards on a collision course that leads to Civil War.

Rocky Rates It

4/5  ★★★★

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