James A. Michener’s Mexico opens with these words:
I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind. And since it had not yet happened, I had been ordered to get photographs, too.
Clearly, this isn’t the standard Michener formula.
The journalist is Norman Clay. Born and reared in Toledo, Mexico, he left for the US in 1938 after the Mexicans confiscated oil wells his family owned. Clay served in the American armed World War II, and worked as a journalist ever since.
Clay, 52, is back in his hometown to cover a bullfight that’s rumored to be a confrontation the equivalent of murder.
He revisits places he knew as a childhood, tracing his roots to Mexico’s three primary population groups: Indians, Spaniards, and English. Readers get to see how differently pivotal historical personages and events were viewed by each of the three groups.
Some of the historical facts are grisly: men’s beating hearts ripped out of them to appease a stone god, nuns burned alive, women made to work in a silver mine, never seeing daylight.
With the brutality, there’s also art, music, public service, bullfighting, and an ending with just the right degree of happy ending for a 52-year-old journalist.
Danielle Steel presents Jewels as Sarah Whitfield’s 75th birthday retrospective.
As a Manhattan debutante, Sarah fell for the wrong man. The marriage ended in a divorce that humiliated her into seclusion. To get her out of her funk, her parents took her to Europe where she met and married the much older William, Duke of Whitfield.
As the Nazis mobilized, William was called to military service. With an infant son and another baby on the way, Sarah stayed in a rural French chateau occupied by Germans while he’s gone. Although believed dead, William survived the war.
The couple had three more children and built a business buying jewels from war survivors who need money to rebuild their lives.
After William’s death, Sarah ran the jewelry stores and tried to cope with the problems her adult children cause.
Steel would have readers believe that, Sarah, despite her lack of training for anything, could refinish woodwork, direct a multi-national business, and assist in the hospital when casualties are heavy.
The historical content is equally preposteous. In rural France under Nazi occupation, Sarah and her children never so much as miss a meal.
Jewel is a novel full of characters but no real people, glass passed off as a gem.
Night Over Water centers around a largely forgotten piece of 20th century aviation history: the luxury aircraft the Flying Clipper, which could land and take off from the ocean.
In Ken Follett’s novel, a few days after Britain declares war on German in 1939, the Clipper takes off on a 30-hour flight to New York. Some of the passengers are trying to avoid the war, others are trying to escape their pasts.
Weather conditions had to be just right for the Clipper. It couldn’t take off or land unless the waves were less than three feet high. Unless stars were visible, the aircraft had no way to navigate and could run out of fuel. Conserving fuel often meant going through storms rather than around them.
The spark for the drama is the presence on the plane of a mobster being returned to America for trial. His gang have kidnapped the pregnant wife of the Clipper’s engineer in order to force her husband to have the plane land in the ocean off Newfoundland where they can rescue him.
Follett’s characters are types familiar to novel readers. It’s the setting that produces the drama. Few writers can milk the drama from an historical setting to entertain and inform as Follett can.
Message from Nam is a surprising departure from Danielle Steel’s typical romances. And it’s also far better than they.
Paxton Andrews, a Georgia teen who idolized her late father and is emotionally estranged from her mother and brother, chooses UC Berkeley for college.
Within months, she falls in love with a law student who has burned his draft card. When drafted, Peter chooses to serve, despite his opposition to America’s involvement in Viet Nam. Five days into his first tour of duty, he’s killed by “friendly fire.”
Paxton drops out of college a few credits short of her journalism degree.
Peter’s father, who owns the San Francisco Morning Sun, agrees to let Paxton go to Saigon as a reporter for six months.
Paxton extends her assignment to seven years, writing her “Message from Nam” until she catches the last helicopter out of Saigon.
The novel has the usual romantic bits, including an ending that feels downright fraudulent, but the bulk of the book is Steel’s retelling of the headline news of 1963 through 1975.
Of all of Steel’s novels I’ve read thus far for GreatPenformances, Message from Nam is the most atypical and the most memorable. It stands out as an historical snapshot.
In The Plains of Passage, Jean M. Auel picks up her story of Alya and Jondalar’s horseback trip from the Black Sea westward along the Danube, across a glacier, and on to Jondalar’s home into what is today France.
Alya fears Jondalar’s family won’t like her.
He worries he might not be able to father a child by her.
They meet few people on their travels. Those they meet are astonished that they ride horses instead of eating them and severely frightened by Alya’s tame wolf.
The pair win friends by sharing their knowledge. Alya is a medicine woman, animal trainer, inventor of a sewing needle, and discoverer of stones that, when struck, produce sparks for fire.
Jondalar is skilled in working flint for knives and spearheads, and inventor of a spear-throwing device that makes hunting big game easier.
To liven up the book, Auel provides a blow-by-blow description of each time Alya and Jondalar have sex. By comparison to Auel’s description of the sex life of the woolly mammoth, it’s pretty hot stuff.
Most of the book is taken up with descriptions of the geography and plant and animal life along the traveler’s route. It would be more interesting as a National Geographic program.
In California Gold, John Jakes marries the historical sweep of a James A. Michener novel with the cloying romance of a Danielle Steel novel. The result is a very thick book that’s very easy to forget.
Jakes’ hero, James Macklin Chase, arrives on foot in California in 1886 determined to make his fortune. Mack carries his inspiration with him: T. Fowler Haines’s “Emigrant’s Guide to California and Its Gold Fields.”
Mack has just arrived when he learns a lesson not in Haines’s book: “When you own the water, you can drink all you want.”
Mack doesn’t own water. He is penniless, uneducated, and hopelessly naive. But he’s also handsome, kind, brave, hardworking, intelligent, and willing to take risks.
Jakes moves Mack up and down California from 1886 to 1921.
Mack cleans up well and looks great in black tie.
He fights the corrupt Southern Pacific monopoly, supports the right of labor to organize, pays his workers a fair wage, and protests racism.
He survives the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, meets William Randolph Hearst, Leland Stanford, John Muir, Jack London, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, Teddy Roosevelt.
Ken Follett, who set his three previous bestsellers during World War II, sets The Pillars of the Earth in medieval England.
The novel opens with the hanging of an innocent man. Watching in horror, a pregnant 15-year-old girl curses the monk, the priest, and the knights who hanged him.
Before Follett reveals the significance of that event, he spins a fascinating tale about centered around two men and two women. One is master builder and an artist in stone; both want to build beautiful cathedrals. One of the two women is a beautiful noblewoman, the other an outcast living in the forest.
Twelfth century England was not a pleasant place in which to live. For a half century, the country suffered as competitors vied for the throne.
Towns were burned, crops destroyed, women raped, people slaughtered, survivors forced into penury and starvation.
The clergy sought to protect their rights regardless of who won the throne, sometimes resorting to less than charitable means of promoting their claims.
The story is intricately plotted, fast-paced, and absolutely riveting.
Follet’s story ends with a king settled on the throne and the martyrdom of Thomas á Becket ensuring the church will remain a force in English politics for years to come.
James A. Michener’s novelistic style is as distinctive as a fingerprint.
In Caribbean, the Michener imprint is unusually sunny considering how bleak much of Caribbean history is.
The first chapter ends with cannibals eating a tribe they despise for playing ballgames instead of making war.
That sets the stage for centuries of conflicts both among those who live around the Caribbean Sea and between nations far away who prefer to fight their wars far from home. (More civilized, don’t ya’ know.)
Famous names like Columbus and Sir Francis Drake appear, along with a host of less familiar Caribbean heroes and villains.
The chapters of Caribbean read almost like short stories, which makes the hefty novel very accessible.
Two intertwined themes run through all the stories: Race relations and economic survival.
From the appearance of white explorers to Michener’s day, the Western belief in white superiority prevented darker skinned individuals from participating in a significant way in the islands’ economies.
The exodus of the most talented among them has left the islands at the mercy of the North American tourist trade.
The novel is worth reading as a novel and equally worth reading as a discussion of economic and political realities that are still impacting the United States.
Alaska is a novel to please, but not surprise, James A. Michener fans except for one astonishing fact: All the astonishing-beyond-belief stories in the novel are true.
In another novel, fictional characters like Jeb Keeler and Poley Markham, American lawyers who come to Alaska to make their fortunes by means more legal than moral, would be anomalies.
Against the background of Alaska’s real history, the two are almost dull.
Michener begins his tale with Alaska’s prehistoric origins. He focuses, however, on three historic periods: the 18th century when men in sailing ships explored the Pacific coasts, the 19th century when Russia sold Alaska to the United States, which administered it with ineptitude that beggars belief, and the 20th century when World War II revealed to the American government the importance of Alaska to its national survival.
Michener uses his fictional characters primarily to show how “ordinary Alaskans” (the term itself describes fictional characters) lived at various places at various times.
If you want to read Alaska, find a copy that doesn’t come from a library that glues protective plastic dust jacket shields to the inside covers of books: To follow Michener’s story, you need Jean Paul Tremblay’s maps inside the book’s covers.