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.
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.
Take all the novels you’ve ever read about America’s Civil War, put them in your Magic Bullet, push the on button, and you’d have John Jakes’s novel North and South.
The novel contrasts two families whose ancestors came to America in the 1600s.
The Mains were aristocratic French Protestants who settled in South Carolina.
The first Hazard in America was a working-class English teen who had murdered his stepfather. That lad went to work in the Pennsylvania iron industry.
In 1842 Orry Main and Charles Hazard meet as plebes at the Military Academy at West Point. They become life-long friends despite their different temperaments and backgrounds.
Jakes follows the two men and their families up through Lincoln’s election and the South’s secession.
The dust jacket notes say the novel is “filled with memorable characters, many of them captured from the pages of history.”
Actually, all the memorable characters are from history.
Jakes gives his fictional characters labels and then moves them around like paper dolls.
It’s interesting that Congressman Daniel Boone proposed a bill to close the Military Academy, which was regarded contemptuously in both North and South, but historical trivia is insufficient compensation for characters who are stereotypes.