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.
In The Great Train Robbery, Michael Crichton’s masterfully blurs fact and fiction as he did in The Andromeda Strain.
This time Crichton takes readers to 1855 London, a teeming urban center where the immensely rich often live just across the street from the pathetically poor.
Edward Pierce, a man of unknown antecedents and unsurpassed effrontery, plans to steal the gold bullion being shipped from London to the continent to pay the British Army fighting in Crimea.
Pierce is a meticulous researcher, though his methodologies would not have been well regarded at Oxford or Cambridge.
To secure the four keys needed to open the two safes in which the bullion is transported, Pierce not only spends hour observing and timing the activities of railway employees, but also courts the daughter of one of the key holders and springs a noted cat-burglar from Newgate Prison.
Crichton laces the dialogue with the argot of London’s criminal class, declining to translate much of it, thereby intensifying the impression that he’s recording exactly what the thieves said.
Crichton surrounds the plot with vital trivia about Victorian England’s socioeconomic conditions, architecture, and burial practices.
Readers will close the novel better informed about nineteenth century history and very well entertained.
The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. 266 p.
1975 bestseller #8. My grade: A-
Paul Leicester Ford’s subtitle to his 1900 bestselling romance,Janice Meredith, reveals what’s good and bad about the novel: It’s about the American Revolution, not about Janice Meredith.
As the novel opens, a man calling himself Charles Fownes, newly arrived in New Jersey from England, begins a five-year indenture to Lambert Meredith.
Meredith’s pro-British sentiments and high-handedness with this tenant farmers have made him unpopular with the lower strata of society, which in 1774 is already seething with resentment against King George. Locals suspect Fownes is a deserter from the British army using a false name.
Fownes is immediately enamored of Meredith’s buxom, 15-year-old daughter, Janice, and almost as soon smitten with enthusiasm for the rebel cause. Before long, he’s doing work for General Washington.
Yorktown is under siege seven years later before Ford reveals who the indentured servant really is.
The implausibility of both the fictional characters and the plot makes this long novel seem longer than the Revolution.
Having generals Washington, Howe, and Cornwallis pour their top-secret plans into Janice’s shell-like ear beggars belief. She’s a brainless bimbo, with a mental age of about 4.
Janice Meredith would have been a much better book without Janice Meredith in it.
Janice Meredith: A Story of the American Revolution
By Paul Leicester Ford
Mary Mannering Edition
With a Miniature by Lillie V. O’Ryan
and numerous Scenes from the Play
Project Gutenberg EBook #5719
My grade: C-
Mary Johnston sets Audrey in Virginia in the years when the colony proudly regarded itself as an English land.
Feigning a sprained ankle, Marmaduke Hawarth deserts the 1716 expedition to find a route over the Blue Ridge. Before he can get back to the pretty frontier lass he saw on the way west, Indians massacre all her family except her young sister.
Hawarth places the child, Audrey, with a minister and his wife and goes off to England for 12 years with never a thought to the child.
When he returns, Audrey is 18, beautiful but barefoot, starved for affection, accustomed to physical and mental abuse, and terrified of the half-breed who is the minister’s drinking and gaming partner.
Hawarth accepts the barefoot girl’s adoration without thinking that his attentions ruin her reputation. He’s busy making plans to marry the lovely Evelyn Byrd,Virginia society’s leading lady.
Johnston tries to position Hawarth as a hero, he comes off as a conceited jerk. Even Evelyn Byrd, who would have married Hawarth, seems glad that she did not.
Audrey isn’t much account as a heroine either. She may be beautiful, but she’s about as personable as a tree stump.
The interest in the novel is primarily in the historical details about colonial life. Johnston shows the stark contrast between the affluent Virginians with royal land grants and poor ones with branded arms and indentured years of indentured servitude. At least by twenty-first century reckoning, colonial Virginia had as much reason for shame as for pride.