Chesapeake, James Michener

Fawcett, 1978, 1083 pages, C$3.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-449-24163-7

Is it possible for a saga to be under-whelming?

After all, the adjective seems to be an antithesis of its subject. A saga is almost, by definition, intended to be impressive; spanning dozens of years, involving scores of characters and moving through often-historical events, a saga should thrill, engross and sustain a deep and unshakeable awe from its audience. To deliver anything less is to cheat the reader out of time and, often, money. And yet, Chesapeake

It’s not as if James Michener doesn’t know how to write a saga. Without flashiness, he regularly outpaces Stephen King in page-counts, churning out thousand-pages bricks one after the other. His usual formula consists in taking a locale (Texas, Alaska, Mexico… or the Chesapeake Bay, obviously) and tracing back its history through a series of vignettes taking place at quasi-epochal stages. Mother, sons and grandchildren all figure preeminently, aging through the novel as a vast tapestry of events is slowly built through vignette-chapters.

Chesapeake is, without a shadow of an argument, a saga. It starts out in 1583, as an Indian is exiled from his tribe and forced to settle down near the Chesapeake Bay, becoming the leader of another tribe. Then we move on to 1608, as Englishmen John Steed also settles down the Chesapeake and start building his trading empire. Events accumulate, and major “characters” arrive at the Chesapeake; the Turlocks, Paxmores, Carters and Caveneys successively join the narrative.

As this is a saga extending over hundred of years, it’s a distinguishing feature of Chesapeake that families, not individuals, are the defining characters of the novel. Steeds are the righteous aristocracy; Turlocks the low-life, cunning pirates; Paxmores the peace-loving religious artisans (as if the family name wasn’t enough of a giveaway); Carters the token blacks; Caveneys the Irish lawmen. Nature or nurture? Michener melts families into monolithic entities. As the chapters keep killing off characters, we only need to glance at the family name to have an indication of the moral fabric of the individual. (In general, that is: Michener takes some pleasure in perverting a few individuals, but they usually go back to their family’s ways, as is the case with Paul Steed or Teach Turlock.)

The biggest problem of Chesapeake isn’t there, however. It’s the impression that save for the meaty middle section (with the afore-mentioned Paul Steed and “Captain Teach” Turlock), all of Chesapeake‘s individual chapters are vignettes that no not necessarily set up bigger and more interesting conflicts later down the novel. In fact, the last chapters are more like snapshots of life across the Chesapeake rather than true climactic unfolding of events. You would expect hundred of years’ worth of bottled-up family feuds, but instead you get a fifty-page short story on hunting dogs. Whaaat?

Michener’s main failing contributes to highlight the other annoyances that sour Chesapeake‘s impression: Michener’s lengthy apologetic exposé of slavery and discrimination against blacks. (Though one must favourable mention his unflinching description of slave trading) The futility of the “Voyage” passages once they stop bringing new characters to the Chesapeake Bay. The absolutely massive padding of the whole story. The multiple lacks of latter payoffs from the earlier setups…

Let’s not deny that from a reading-on-the-bus standpoint, Chesapeake delivers the goods in clear, readable prose. It’s as the novel draws at a close and that no threads are tied up that the overall futility of the novel becomes clear. Saga it technically is, but masterpiece it truly isn’t.

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