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

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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

My Picks of 1965 Bestsellers

I have two sets of favorites from the 1965 bestsellers, one serious and the other lighter.

The Source by James A. Michener and The Ambassador by Morris L. West are the best of the 1965 bestsellers. They engage readers in examining weighty topics without being dull or pedantic.

Front of dust jacket of The Source by James A Michener.Michener’s novel is about the history of an archeological dig in Israel. It remains  significant today because the Middle East is still being fought over by descendants of people who settled there in ages past.

Although the topic sounds dry and book is long, The Source can be read comfortably because of Michener’s unusual technique: He reveals significant developments and significant people in the site’s history in what is almost a series of novellas.

Cover of Morris L. West's novel "The Ambassador"The Ambassador is about another war zone: Vietnam.

West looks at American involvement in Indochina through the perspective of an American diplomat whose assignment to head the embassy in Saigon begins inauspiciously:  A monk burns himself to death as the official limousine passes.

In carrying out Washington policy, the ambassador has to do things that offend his sense of American principles.

Today, The Ambassador puts the Vietnam quagmire in historical and cultural context for readers who know little of that era.

On the lighter side, I recommend Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman and Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk.

Kaufman takes readers inside an inner city high school with a novice teacher.

Wouk takes readers to tropical paradise with a middle aged Manhattan publicist looking for a stress free life.

Both novels are funny, but their humor hugs reality closely enough to give readers something worth some serious consideration.

The Source: Jewish Roots and Contemporary Conflicts

To say James A. Michener’s whopping 1965 bestseller The Source is an historical novel both understates and misleads.

Into a narrative about a contemporary archaeological dig at Makor, a man-made mound in Israel, Michener weaves a chronological series of short stories about key people and events in Makor’s history. Through this complex literary device, Michener traces unravels the history of Makor from its earliest human occupation up to 1964.

photo of James A Michener at ruins of Tell Beth-Sham


The Source: A Novel by James A. Michener

New York: Random House, 1965. 909 pages. 1965 bestseller #1. My grade: A


The short stories explore the character of the various peoples who came to Makor—from the Canaanites to the British—with particular focus on the Jews.

Michener makes the characters increasingly complex as centuries pass, giving a sense of the progress of civilization.

Michener connects historical events in Israel and the Middle East with happenings in distant places like Rome and Mexico. He shows, for example, that the Crusades were part of Renaissance colonialism in which Europeans carved out city-states in the Holy Land.

The characters in the excavation narrative form a kind of Greek chorus to comment on and interpret the significance of the history of the Holy Land for the post-World War II world.

As America’s ties to Israel are tested by events in Syria, Iraq and Iran, The Source is worth reading once more.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Middling 1963 novels are best entertainers

The best novels from 1963’s bestseller list are not the most memorable.

The Battle of Villa Fiorita  and Elizabeth Appleton are extraordinarily detailed pictures of rather ordinary people by fine writers. Rumer Godden and John O’Hara, respectively, make the ordinary characters of those novels assume importance for the duration of their novels.

Once the covers are closed and the book jackets are straightened, however, the fascination dissipates. The casts of Villa Fiorita and Elizabeth Appleton are just too ordinary to be memorable.

By contrast, John Rechy’s City of Night is memorable because its protagonist and its subject are far from mainstream. The fact that Rechy states his theme repeatedly helps, too. Rechy’s novel isn’t entertaining at all.

Between those two extremes are three good, but aging, novels with something to say and a decent story to carry the message: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West, Caravans by James A. Michener, and The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. The relevance of each of these novels has diminished with age, but they still provide good entertainment.

Sometimes, good is better than best.