California Gold: a novel

California sun reveals a train, oil derricks, a housing development ringed by orange groves
Mack Chase sees the California sun

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.

Bad guys hate him.

Good guys respect him.

Women fall at his feet.

And Mack lives happily ever after.

California Gold: a novel
By John Jakes
Random House. ©1989. 658 p.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

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 #5 my grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Chesapeake: Delectable, accessible history

James A. Michener can be relied on to give readers their money’s worth and Chesapeake is one of his best bestsellers for contemporary readers.

on cover of James A Michener's novel Chesapeake geese fly over the bay
Geese always drew people to the Chesapeake Bay area.

As he did in Hawaii and Centennial, Michener immerses readers in landscape and history. This time his focus is a roughly 10-mile square area of Maryland’s Eastern Shore marsh lands where the Choptank River flows into Chesapeake Bay.

Michener begins his tale in 1583 when a Susquehannock Indian ostracized for counseling peace finds a welcome with the Choptank tribe and becomes its chief.

After that, Catholics and Quakers come to escape religious persecution, criminals come to escape hanging, slaves come because they are forced to, Irish come to escape starvation.

As the population grows, the intertwined and overlapping interests of these fascinating characters—historical as well as fictional ones—bring them into contact and sometimes into conflict with one another.

Michener displays his usual facility at turning well-researched technical information into spell-binding narrative. Readers will be entertained and informed by Michener’s descriptions of how a crab sheds its shell, boat building, and recipes for crab cakes.

More importantly, they’ll see how race, immigration policies, environmental protection, and education have been turned over the years into political issues that still divide America.

Chesapeake by James A. Michener
Random House, ©1978. 865 p.
1978 bestseller #1. My grade: A

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Egyptian Joins Pessimism to Pyramids

The Egyptian is a fictional memoir of the life of a physician in the days of the pharaohs. The narrator, Sinuhe, is an old man, sick of gods and kings. He says he writes for himself rather than for posterity.

Unfortunately, Mika Waltari published the “memoir,”  inflicting Sinuhe’s misery on readers for 500 pages.

Readers will find a new interesting historical bits in this novel, but it’s entertainment value is nil.

Sinuhe’s medical skills take him all over the Middle East. His specialty is brain surgery: he drills holes in people’s heads to let out the badness.

Sinuhe meets heads of countries and commanders of armies, patches up wounded soldiers, treats the poor for free. When necessity demands, he hastens the deaths of enemies of Egypt.

Back in Thebes, he sides with the party of the newly-created god, Aton, against the followers of Ammon. The religious controversy ends in wholesale slaughter.

Sinuhe is exiled to end his days living up to his name, “the One Who Is Alone.”

Waltari’s novel is packed with sex and violence related with all the passion of the police blotter. Only Sinuhe’s servants, Kaptah and Muti, feel like living people. The rest of the characters are just hieroglyphics.

The Egyptian: A Novel
By Mika Waltari
Trans. Naomi Walford
G.P. Putnan’s Sons,  1949
503 pages
1949 Bestseller # 1
My Grade: C-

© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni