In his “Afterward” to Burr, Gore Vidal says that with the exceptions he describes, “the characters are in the right places, on the right dates, doing what they actually did.”
One of the exceptions is Charlie Schuyler, Vidal’s invented narrator.
Charlie is working as a clerk in Burr’s law office ostensibly with an eye on joining the bar; in truth, he wants a literary career. That vantage point lets Charlie record personal and public information about Burr from a wide range of sources, including Burr himself.
Charlie agrees to dig up dirt on Burr for publishers with political as well as mercenary motives.
The facts about Aaron Burr that today’s typical reader knows appear on the first page of Vidal’s novel. While vice-president, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Three years later, Burr was charged with treason in connection with a plot to invade Spanish territory and make himself emperor of Mexico.
Readers get to sift all the dirt and make up their own minds about Burr’s character.
Tidbits of the novel are fascinating (eg: George Washington wanted to be addressed as “Your Mightiness”: Thomas Jefferson wanted to send slaves back to “their original latitude.”).
Vidal’s writing is witty while it reveals how much—and how little—America has changed in 200 years.
In Two from Galilee, novelist Marjorie Holmes pieces together a plausible but saccharine story to cover what is known from the gospel records about Mary and Joseph, the parents of the Christ Child.
Holmes fills in the pages thanks to a good imagination supported by research into Jewish customs of the time.
Mary is the prettiest, most sought-after girl in town. Her parents are poor, but they expect Mary to marry above her station. Joseph wouldn’t be their choice: His family isn’t prosperous enough for their Mary.
Joseph is a handsome, hardworking young man, some half dozen years her senior. In love with Mary since they were children, he’s been waiting for her to grow up.
Joseph’s father, a wood worker, is slipshod about completing work on time if the job doesn’t interest him; as a result, his family is even poorer than Mary’s.
Mary can twist her father around her little finger—and does—to get her parents to accept Joseph as her bridegroom.
When she’s later found to be pregnant, she goes off to spend time with her relative Elizabeth, who has conceived her first born late in life.
Reading Two From Galilee won’t do anyone any harm, but its not likely to do anyone much good either.
Two from Galilee: A Love Story by Marjorie Holmes
Revell  223 p.
1972 bestseller #8. My grade: B-
In Captains and the Kings, she tells the story of a boy who came to America to escape the Irish famine in the early 1850s.
By the time he arrived, he was 12, an orphan with a younger brother and infant sister to care for, and America didn’t want any more Irish.
Both honest and ruthless, as “Joe Francis” teenage Joseph Francis Xavier Armagh outsmarted and outworked men twice his age.
Brains and discipline put him in the way of luck.
Friends were unwaveringly loyal to him.
Women fell for him.
His children loved him, though he did nothing to win their love.
What makes Captains and the Kings an unusual historical novel is that Caldwell puts Joseph into situations where wealthy men behind the scenes plot how to quite literally take over the world.
Their plan includes the establishment of income taxes in every country in the world, extermination of the middle class via taxation, and “prudently scheduled” wars around the world “to absorb the products of our growing industrial and technological society.”
Captains and the Kings has an exciting plot interwoven with a powerful message for readers with the guts to take it in.
Captains and the Kings by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1972. Book Club Edition. 695 p.
1972 bestseller #7. My grade: A
August, 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel about the first two weeks of World War I on the Eastern Front is not for the faint of heart.
Russian naming conventions are bewildering, the story jumps from one military unit to another, and the camouflage green liner-paper maps are hard to read.
Those who persevere will find the novel worth the effort.
The novel traces the events of the first two weeks of WWI. Russia had foolishly promised France they’d begin war operations 15 days after war was declared, long before the country was prepared to supply its front line troops.
Russia’s generals were mainly old duffers whose skills consisted mainly of “being able to compose the right sort of dispatches…which can make inaction sound like hard fighting.”
Up against a German army armed with tanks and connected by telephone, the Russian horse soldiers with 19th century weaponry and hand-delivered battle orders were out of their league.
Against this backdrop of incompetence on a monumental scale, Solzhenitsyn shows the rugged endurance and bravery of ordinary soldiers.
If you read nothing more of August 1914, read chapter 50 in which eight soldiers carry their regimental commander’s body home for burial. Even in translation, it’s a great piece of writing that can stand alone.
The Drifters is a big novel about six rootless young people and two much older men whose addresses are poste restante.
Initially, it seems a surprising departure for James A. Michener, noted for big, place-based novels, such as Hawaiiand The Source, but it becomes an exploration of how Vietnam-era youth became alienated from the societies in which they grew up and what it would take for them to put down roots.
The stories of the six young people are narrated by a 60-something financial deal maker for an insurance company. His work takes him around the world to find good investments.
Divorced and alienated from his own son, Mr. Fairbanks meets some of the youth in the course of his work and is introduced to the others through them.
Fairbanks introduces the young people to ex-Marine Harvey Holt, a communications technician who works in remote places, but comes every year to run with the bulls in Papaloma.
From the dust jacket descriptions, the young people bumming in Europe and North Africa sound like caricatures of ‘sixties figures. By showing Fairbanks’ efforts to understand them, Michener makes them feel very real.
Through The Drifters, I found myself understanding somewhat today’s right-wing youth who want their countries back.
Herman Wouk’s 1971 bestseller, The Winds of War, immerses readers in world history from 1939 to December 1941, showing great leaders as ordinary men and ordinary men as great leaders.
The story is told through the experiences of an American naval family — Commander Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, and their three children — and the people who matter to them: the sons’ wives and their families, the prominent people the daughter meets in her work for a popular national radio show.
Pug is sent at President Roosevelt’s behest to “observe” on behalf of the military in Berlin, England, and Russia. He meets Hitler, Churchill, Stalin.
When Germany invades Poland, one son, who was working in Europe, is trapped along with American Jewish woman with whom he’s fallen in love.
The other son, a navy pilot,marries the senate’s most outspoken opponent to American intervention in a European war. He’s at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bomb it.
Wouk lets all these characters take readers around the world to get a 360-degree view of what led each of the participants into World War II.
Amazingly, Wouk makes every character a believable human being.
The Winds of War is the reading you would have liked to have had in history class.
The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
Little, Brown.  888 p.
1971 bestseller #7. My grade: A+
The Apostle Paul is one of the towering figures of the New Testament, but little is known of his pre-Damascus Road experiences.
In Great Lion of God, Taylor Caldwell imagines a Jewish-Roman family and childhood experiences to account for his behavior in later life.
Not content with that, she also deliberately sets out to draw comparisons between the Roman era and twentieth century America, with an ultimate goal, she says in her introduction, to influence people to study the scriptures.
With all those weighty goals, it’s no surprise the novel feels as if it’s back is broken.
Caldwell extensively researched the background of her story and the pictures she draws of the different communities and cultures in the first century are fascinating. Unfortunately, the historical characters she moves through these scenes are not fascinating.
Caldwell’s attempt to make Paul appear a man like ourselves backfires: Readers won’t want to be like Paul. From childhood, the Paul of the novel is cold and generally unpleasant.
Even the youthful sexual experience Caldwell invents to account for Paul’s alleged anti-woman attitudes doesn’t make him interesting. The man is boring.
If you’re interested in Paul, read his letters: He’s at his best there.
Great Lion of God by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1970. Book Club Edition. 597 pp.
1970 bestseller #5. My grade: B