James Michener's Chesapeake

16 August 2009

A shocking number of reviews of this title begin with some statement alluding to its dull, boring nature, but I would argue that to call Chesapeake boring is to miss the beauty of his novel completely. In this sweeping, almost epic, 975-page volume, Michener covers the history of the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay from the Native Americans and John Smith up to the developments being built in 1978. Not once does he miss a beat as his story plods along - and true, it plods. Characters are brought up in a matter of sentences, formed in a matter of pages, and killed off again within a chapter; contrary to some reviewers' opinions, this felt intentional on Michener's part, and served only to emphasize the fact that while this is a humanized version of history, the main players of the novel are in no way humans.

Rather, Michener's extensive research is highlighted by his continued emphasis on three strains: the importance of human tolerance, the nature of life and death, and, perhaps most importantly, the invaluable role of ecology and the environment in our daily lives.

Furthermore, his understanding of the sea and all of its related activities - boating, fishing, crabbing, etc - reveals the extent to which he came to know and love this magnificent body of water during his study of it. In fact, he cannot hide this love; his writing is passionate albeit removed. But this removal allows him a clearer view of his subject, missing no detail, however small or trivial it may be.

Bottom line: Forget the rest of them. If you appreciate, in any way, human history, American history, boating, or nature, and don't mind what some might call "tedious" (and mind you, even Tolkien can be tedious at times, and no one calls Lord of the Rings boring), this is for you. You'll never find yourself more fascinated by the molting of a crab's hard shell or the migration patterns of a goose, or more captivated by the utterly human tales of trials and hardships, or more struck by the pains of our continued mistreatment of the environment.

2 comments :

  1. I'm a bit more than half way through, and riveted. Being a native Marylander may have something to do with this, as my nostalgia and interest are piqued, but by any fair estimation this novel is as gripping as it is historical.

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