Caribbean (a Michener novel)

island scene in center of dust jacketJames 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.

drawing of sugar processing plant
   Sugar plantation

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.

Caribbean by James A. Michener
Cartography by Jean Paul Tremblay
Illustrations by Franca Nucci Haynes
Random House. ©1989. 672 p.
1989 bestseller #7 my grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Alaska is a Michener novel

Alaska’s physical features and main modes of travel are suggested in the image on the novel’s dust jacket
Geography guides Alaska’s history

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.

map inside front cover of "Alaska"
Jean Paul Tremblay’s maps are essential to understanding the novel
Alaska by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1988. 868 p.
1988 bestseller #5; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Heaven and Hell

Front cover has 1 image suggesting 1800s western plains,1 suggesting Reconstruction-era South.Heaven and Hell is the novelistic equivalent of a film with “a cast of thousands” but no leading man or woman.

The novel is the third volume of John Jakes’ North and South trilogy and shouldn’t be read without reading the prior volumes, preferably with little time between the readings.

Of the leading men of volume one, Orry Main is dead and Charles Hazard emotionally deadened by America’s War Between the States.

The men’s family, friends, and enemies are scattered from South Carolina to California.

Jakes attempts to follow what happened to all characters, jumping in a single chapter from character to character, state to state, often separating the fictional events with quotations from newspaper headlines and other contemporaneous sources.

Jakes’ featured characters, who even in the trilogy’s first volume were scarcely more memorable than Danielle Steel’s, are as distinctive as anatomy class skeletons.

The history in the novel, particularly the rise of the Klu Klux Klan and its terror tactics, is the most interesting aspect of the book.

Unfortunately, Jakes finishes by restoring his leading characters who survived the war to a semblance of normality. The one exception is the blacks, whose post-war situation is as bad in different ways as the pre-war one.

Heaven and Hell by John Jakes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ©1987. 700 p.
1987 bestseller 8; my grade: C-

©2019 Linda G. Aragon

 

Leaving Home by Garrison Keillor

Roadside sign says houses in distance are Lake WobegonLeaving Home is a collection of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion monologues about Lake Wobegon, the little town on the edge of the Minnesota prairie “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Leaving Home doesn’t make any attempt at a plot. It’s simply a collection of literary oddments.

The chapters are short, usually three to five pages, often funny, and vibrating with the ring of oral stories about small town people from mid-century mid-America.

People who grew up in any rural community in America after World War II will recognize the traits that Keillor alternately mocks and lauds.

These are church-going people, with or without personal faith, but with a strong commitment to what their church represents.

They aren’t rich or famous. Some are comfortable, others not so much.

All of them wonder what the world is coming to.

The book will bring joy to fans of Keillor’s down-home style of yarn-spinning.

Leaving Home should also have a strong attraction for depressed 21st century readers wondering what the world is coming to, and yearning for models of how to live among those with whom you disagree without being disagreeable.

Leaving Home: A Collection of
Lake Wobegon Stories
by Garrison Keillor
Viking. ©1987. 244 p.
1987 bestseller #4; my grade: B+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Whirlwind by James Clavell

James Clavell’s Whirlwind is a good novel, but there’s just too much of it.

map of area where Whirlwind takes place
You can’t read Whirlwind without a map to help you follow the action. 

Whirlwind is about employees of a British helicopter company operating in Iran in 1979. The Shah has left, and the country has descended into chaos. Pro-Khomeini Iranians are scrambling to grab all they can from the detested atheistic capitalists.

Pilot Scot Gavallan describes the company’s predicament this way:

Our Iran’s gone. Most of the fellows we’ve worked with over the years have fled, are in hiding, dead—or against us if they like it or not.

The S-G employees come up with a plan to get themselves and as many of their aircraft as possible out of Iran before the fleet is nationalized.

Their plan, code-named Whirlwind, will be very dangerous, but staying is also dangerous.

Though Clavell is a fine writer, Whirlwind is simply too much story for one novel. Readers have to keep track of a dozen pilots, their wives or girlfriends, spies for several governments, and a host of minor characters.

Besides that, there are not many novel readers around today who watched the Iranian revolution unfold on NBC Nightly News and acquired the background to appreciate Clavell’s story.

scarf caught on a raised machine gun

Whirlwind by James Clavell
W. Morrow, 1986. 1147 p.
1986 bestseller #3; my grade: B+

Lake Wobegon Days

Small strip of Lake Wobegon is at center of front cover
Not much going on.

Fans of Minnesota Public Radio’s long-running variety show Prairie Home Companion set in the fictional Lake Wobegon were no doubt responsible for making Lake Wobegon Days a 1985 bestseller.

The book by the show’s creator and monologist Garrison Keillor is a collection of stories about the small, rural Minnesota community told in the rambling, discursive style beloved by audiences for almost 40 years.

That audience would recognize the people Keillor talks about in the book: the Bunsens, Pastor Ingqvist, Father Emil, Dorothy of the Chatterbox Cafe, Ralph of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, and Norwegian bachelor farmers.

Readers today are more likely to associate Keillor with an accusation of “inappropriate behavior” (a term unknown to Lake Webegonians) and “The Lake Wobegon effect,” derived from the Keillor’s description of the town as a place “where all the children are above average.”

Close-up of picture of Lake Woebegon
In close-up, Lake Woebegon is a bland, mid-20th century prairie town.

Readers for whom the little town on the prairie would prompt recollections of their own experiences growing up are a dwindling group: Keillor’s 77th birthday is this year.

For today’s young Americans of child-rearing age, the world of Lake Wobegon will be about as familiar as life in a 14th century Italian monastery.

In 1985, Lake Wobegon Days was humor.

Today it’s historical fiction.

Lake Wobegon Daysby Garrison Keillor
Viking. ©1985. 337 p.
1985 bestseller #3; my grade C+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Texas: 450 years of history

A single-star Texas battle flag decorates the front cover of "Texas"
That’s the Texas battle flag

In Texas, James A. Michener varies his usual format for place-based historical novels: He sets Texas within a context of an imaginary task force whose job it is to decide what the state’s students learn about Texas history and how they should they learn it.

The task force allows Michener to present the history of the lone star state beginning with Spanish explorations in the 1500s up to the 1980s and to also provide commentary and interpretations of that history.

Michener clearly likes Texans, even when he dislikes some of the things they do.

Readers get Michener’s familiar history-by-the-eras formula with a unique Texas twist: Michener presents Texas as a state composed of seven state-sized, unique areas.

What makes Texas a state seems to be those areas’ sense of their superiority to any place that’s not Texas.

Texas is pure Michener: meticulously research, lyrically written, and almost flawlessly edited.

I can’t say that I liked the Texans I encountered in the pages of Texas, but I’m glad I read the novel.

It’s good preparation for understanding issues America is wrestling with today on its Southern border and elsewhere across the country: lack of water, climatic changes, and the need for migrant workers and the desire to restrict immigration.

Texas by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1985. 1096 p.
1985 bestseller #2; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni