Mexico by James A. Michener

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.

an Indian stone figure lighted by the sunHe 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.

Mexico by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1992. 625 p.
1992 bestseller #8; my grade: A

©2020 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

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

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

Poland by James A. Michener

map of Poland with dust jacket of novel Poland superimposed on it
The inside cover map helps readers follow the action and the history in the novel.

Like many of James A. Michener’s other bestselling novels, Poland is a story about fictional characters whose lives allow Michener to show how historical events affected and were influenced by the real people who lived in that real place.

In Poland, the opening and closing chapters are set in 1981 as farmers in a fictional Polish farming community along the Vistula River try to organize a union, which the Soviets oppose: A union would give Polish farmers too much control over Russia’s food supply.

In the chapters in between, Michener traces Polish history forward from the 13th century when invaders from the East under Genghis Khan ravaged Poland.

From that period through 1918, Poland’s rulers kept its peasants tied to the land, little better than slaves.

Various of Poland’s neighbors sought to influence, control, or eliminate it in accordance with their own political aspirations: Poland disappeared entirely from the map of Europe for 123 years.

Russia succeeded after World War II in turning Poland into a Soviet satellite.

The sweep of the novel, the difficulties of Polish names, and the strangeness of Poland’s political system make for challenging reading, but it will reward readers with a better understanding of the corner of Europe that Vladimir Putin dominates today.

Poland by James A. Michener
Random House. 1st ed. ©1983. 556 p.
1983 bestseller #2. My grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Space: A Novel

James A. Michener was never a man to shrink from big tasks. His 1982 bestselling novel tackled one of the biggest: An exposition of America’s space program.

All-black background with small red circle through which stars can be seen
    A small section of the universe

The novel begins as World War II ends.

Michener applies his tried-and-true formula of showing events through the experiences of fictional characters living at pivotal times.

Michener first introduces four fictional men whose lives will be intertwined with the American space program. Later readers will meet their wives and children.

Through these fictional characters, Michener is able to trace not only the history of America’s space program, but of America’s changing profile.

Although Michener was a gung-ho supporter of the space program—he served for four years to the NASA Advisory Council and had extensive contacts with NASA scientists and engineers—he records with an historian’s eye how people outside the program reacted to it.

Particularly interesting for readers today to see how the space program led to an anti-science movement, the feminist movement, proliferation of fundamentalist religious groups, rise of right wing militants, and a distrust in government in general.

In 1982, Michener’s Space may well have been as prescient as Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here in 1935 or George Orwells’s novel 1984 in 1949.

Space by James A. Michener
Random House. 1st ed. ©1982. 622 p.
1982 bestseller #2. My grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Covenant: a novel about South Africa

A cave painting of a rhinoceros is on the cover of James A. Michener's novel The Covenant.
Rhino is from an ancient African cave painting.

In The Covenant, James A. Michener focuses as he has done in so many other best sellers* on one specific place and the character of the peoples who made that place their home over millennia.

As usual, Michener invents a cast of characters who occasionally rub elbows with actual historical figures, beginning with the brown and black populations in South Africa some 15,000 years ago.

Whites come to South Africa occasionally, but don’t stay until the mid-17th century when the Dutch establish a trading post on the Cape of Good Hope.

The first European settlers are Dutch farmers, Boers, who expand eastward toward land controlled by black tribes even as the Dutch cede their African colony to the English in 1795.

From 1800 onward, South Africa is in conflict. Whites against black, black against black, whites against colored, but increasingly Dutch against English.

The English military win the Boer War of 1899-1902, but the Boers triumph politically. They become Afrikaners.

Fiercely independent, rich and powerful, by 1979 Afrikaners dominate blacks, Coloureds, and Asians through the apartheid system.

Events since 1980 have changed the face of Africa, leaving contemporary readers with less connection to events in The Covenant than the novel would have had then, but they can’t obliterate Michener’s masterful storytelling.

The Covenant by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1980. 877 p.
1980 bestseller #1. My grade: A

*Hawaii, Centennial, and Chesapeake are three of Michener’s pre-1980 place-focused bestsellers.

 ©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

Centennial tops history with prophesy

map of Centennial from the novel's endpapers
The town’s map was laid out in straight lines, its history was less straightforward.

Readers familiar with Hawaii, Caravans, and The Source, will find Centennial is another of the place-based novels covering centuries of history for which James A. Michener is famous.

Through the lens of a fictional town in what is now Colorado, Centennial tells America’s history from the age of the dinosaurs up until the early 1970s, warts and all.

The first people who appear in Michener’s narrative are Native Americans whose nomadic lives bring them through the area along the South Platte River hunting buffalo.

An Arapaho named Lame Beaver and his family become the thread holding Michener’s tale together for generations.

Beaver trappers come to land, followed by farmers.

Centennial's first edition dust jacket
The story’s too complex for an image.

The vast prairie next tempts cattlemen whose livelihoods are soon threatened by sheep farmers.

Sugar beets mark the next phase of settlement.

No matter their occupations, the people of the plains are at the mercy of the weather. They and their animals require water, which by 1970 is already a rapidly disappearing resource.

Centennial is vintage Michener: Passionate, precise, picturesque, never glossing over the despicable, never wallowing in the salacious.

And as always Michener brings into his story historical facts that are more bizarre than any fiction readers could imagine.

Centennial by James A. Michener
Random House [1974] p. 909
1974 bestseller #1. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Drifters roots for the rootless

The Drifters is a big novel about six rootless young people and two much older men whose addresses are poste restante.

White, red and gold text on black are only elements on The Drifters dust jacket.
This copy of The Drifters has circulated.

Initially, it seems a surprising departure for James A. Michener, noted for big, place-based novels, such as Hawaii and 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.

The Drifters: A Novel by James A. Michener
Random House, ©1971, 751 p.
1971 bestseller #8. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni