James Michener has a remarkable talent for introducing a setting and taking his readers on a journey, that will make one understand the area through it’s history and it’s people. In Chesapeake, he forms a novel around that area in Maryland that borders the Choptank River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay.
Michener begins with the natives just prior to settlement by colonial English. Through native (and later colonial) eyes, the reader gets a good feel for the bounty available in this area. He describes a beautiful natural setting with fish and fowl, berries and trees – everything capable of sustaining life. His descriptions of the land make it a valuable treasure to his characters and his readers, and this is even more poignant in later chapters of the book, when environmental concerns come into play.
Like all Michener books, there is so much history here. From 16th century Native American tribes, to immigrants arriving from across a vast ocean, we learn how each affects the land and how the land affects them. I was fascinated to learn how the different religious sects arrived to find persecution in this new land. We are always told that early settlers came to flee religious persecution, but in Chesapeake, early Quakers were flogged, stripped and sometimes chased naked out of various colonies.
Slavery and the racist attitudes that survive it’s demise, also play a big role in this 1,000 + page novel. I enjoyed the stories of the African Cudjo, how he led the mutiny of his slave ship, and how he eventually became free. Michener did a good job of portraying those who profited, either directly or indirectly, from the slave trade. Their struggle with conscience versus the uncertainty of economic livelihood was well presented. And the feisty Quaker matriarch, who knew, without a doubt, that slavery was an evil that must be abolished, was a wonderful balance to the slaves and those that allowed slavery to continue.
Michener also used anthropomorphism to make the world of geese and crabs come alive in a way that helped the reader to understand the changes taking place in nature. I greatly appreciated this much more than the straightforward approach he used in other novels.
Another story line near the end included the Watergate crimes. Since this novel was first published in 1978, Michener, like all of us during that time, were surrounded by news of the break-in and subsequent hearings. With little choice in television or radio, Watergate was on every channel all the time. You couldn’t get away from it. And so I appreciated even more, Michener’s including it in the book. Somehow, it seemed right because it would have been a big part of the history of this area, especially given it’s proximity to the nation’s capital.
I have to yet to read a Michener novel that I didn’t enjoy, and Chesapeake definitely rises to the top of those I have read. Fabulous book!
5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1978