Bingo Square Round 2: Home, Something, Home (John Jakes was born in Illinois)
When I was in elementary school in Germany, one of the local channels aired Fackeln im Sturm, the TV mini series about two families and best friends on opposing sides of the Civil War. Between this show and Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze quickly became an important cornerstone in my early tween crushes. My parents had seen the mini series when we were still in the States, and I am pretty sure we were even able to locate copies of it in English so I could see it without German dubbing. Whenever someone mentions North and South, my first thought is this, not the BBC adaptation of the 19th century novel. I think we also tried watching Roots around this same time, but I quickly lost interest when they changed the actor for Kunta Kinte from Jordi LaForge to some person I didn’t know. I was very set in my ways as a child (some things never change).
Once I was in the States, we were required to do a certain amount of reading with a focus in American history or literature in English class, and had to turn in 3×5 notecards with a quick report and synopsis. John Jakes became one of my go to authors, and I quickly read my way through the North and South trilogy and his Kent Family series. I also particularly loved Homeland which was set in the late 19th/early 20th century. In Germany, I had already been interested in mythology and history, and I had read lots of Holocaust related novels. While Jakes didn’t create my love of history, he certainly helped feed and develop my love of sweeping, multi-generational epics. James Michener and Edward Rutherford would follow as go to authors for me, because of how the three authors would bring history to live, and also teach small events that wouldn’t make it in history text books, or would only receive a paragraph of acknowledgment.
So when a Cannonballer mentioned in a FB group that North and South was a daily deal a month or so ago, I decided maybe it was time to take another look, and once again read the story of George Hazard, a Yankee, and Orry Main, from a slave owning South Carolinian family, and how they forged a life long friendship at West Point prior to the Mexican American War and leading through the Civil War. I feared that it may not have aged well, and some parts of that fear were definitely proven true. This novel feels very 1980s!
The women basically fall into the Madonna/Whore complex. Brett and Ashton, the two Main sisters, are polar opposites and the perfect example of this approach. Brett is sweet and virginal, while Ashton is a manipulative and conniving sexual predator but seems more interested in it for the sake of power – and the occasional souvenir. The other woman who is portrayed as sexually aggressive is Virgilia, and she is also portrayed as mentally unbalanced, being turned on by the idea of violence and the destruction of the South.
I am sure at a younger age I probably thought the Orry/Madeline relationship was romantic as they have an emotional affair they don’t consummate because Madeline doesn’t want to break her vow to her horrible husband. Basically, this allows them to be a tragic love story while also keeping Madeline on the Madonna side of things. Now, I am a bit irritated with the distinction and lack of sex. Orry has a series of mistresses despite his pure love for Madeline to help relieve his tension and protect her by providing reasonable excuses for his frequent absences. There is actually a discussion Orry and George have as young cadets where Orry acknowledges he places women on a pedestal; while I appreciated that George corrected him and told him that women were people, too, I could have done without his comparison of women to old gloves.
It’s also very ’80s because of how quickly everyone falls in love – there is little character or relationship development in this aspect of the novel. George meets the woman he will marry, and is instantly smitten; Cooper (I can’t remember if Orry had an older brother in the mini series or if they cut the character for time) has a similar story; and of course Orry and Madeline have a meet cute that they cannot act on due to her engagement. Also, Billy Hazard meets the Main sisters one summer, decides he is in love with Ashton, keeps up this devotion for a whole year, and over the course of the next summer, realizes she is not the right fit for him and immediately falls for the younger sister. It’s like, I get that your families are close but there are other women in the world that you might see more than once a year. Oh, speaking of which, I know people married young back in those days, and that girls were deemed adult at a younger age and often married men older than them. Still, I was a bit disturbed by the amount of men in their early twenties courting women that were around 14. Aren’t they supposed to at least pretend to wait until the women are 16?
Beyond the frustrating gender pieces, I am just not sure that now was the best time to read this novel. In some ways, it was interesting because some of the statements and insights felt only too relevant. In others, it was frustrating because is there really room for compromise or patience when certain issues are at stake?
Jakes attempts to show the complexity on both sides, and how the extremists on both sides made the situation even worse; he tries to create sympathetic characters on both sides but honestly, Orry is not nearly as charming as I remembered, especially as written on the page – that character definitely got a huge upgrade with the casting of Patrick Swayze. Jakes is not on the side of the slave holders and addresses this in his afterword. George seems to be the moral center of the book, and he is a moderate. He believes slavery is wrong and that it must end, he even harbors runaway slaves but he is turned off by the extremism of some of the abolitionists. When the novel ends with the country at odds, George laments that both sides couldn’t find a better way, been more patient. And on the one hand, war is never a good thing, the Civil War still has the largest casualty toll of any American war but can you really counsel patience when people are enslaved and suffering? I also know it’s easy to judge people back then (or fictional book characters) when I don’t go out of my way to research the labor practices of the firms from which I buy things, especially ones with outsourced production. So we are all guilty and complicit.
One thing that Jakes portrays well is the division within the South. There were people with doubts, there were people who could look to the North and see that economically, they were hurting themselves in the long run by not embracing innovation. The problem, though, was that so many people felt judged that at some point, even the moderates shifted from trying to find a potential solution to the “peculiar institution” and instead were hanging on to it because they didn’t want those damn Northerners judging them or telling them how to do things. It is easy to hope for compromise but when the one side is actively clinging to its institutions out of anger, spite and stubbornness and stops even trying to find a different way, believing it will resolve itself on its own in the future, there really isn’t any other way but force. Basically any attempt to provide constructive criticism and ways to change the path were met with responses like this quote: “Hold your tongue. Southerners don’t speak against their homeland. At least loyal Southerner don’t. There are enough Yankees doing that.”
I think Jakes showed a sanitized version of slavery even with some of the scenes he described. For example, while there is a man who is marked by his missing teeth, and whipping/cat-hauling scene, he also gives the slave women more sexual agency and freedom than I would have expected. One foreman is interested in one of the slaves on the plantation, and as portrayed, the reader is supposed to believe he was somehow attempting to woe her or get her to agree rather than showing that the foreman probably would have done exactly what he wanted and had the power to do it. By having Orry be a part of a family of kindly slave owners who occasionally do bad things because of the corruption of power, it diminishes the extremes that abolitionists were fighting against.
Another issue I had combines the slavery and extremism piece and feels relevant today. While Jakes mostly favors the Northern view, he also very much tries to show a balanced and fair view, equating the extremist of the North with the extremist of the South. But are they, really, and how representative were they/how large were their numbers? The extreme abolitionists just want to see the South burn, while the Southerners want to secede. In some ways, the Main and Hazard families parallel each other very much in their structure – George and Orry as the second brothers who take over the family business while their older brothers pursue other avenues, the next generation in the forms of Billy and Cousin Charles, and then the sisters. Ashton and Virgilia are both the difficult women with bad sexual appetites. Virgilia is this novel’s view of the abolitionist movement, but she also shown as doing it wrong, being engaged and turned on by the violence of an uprising in the South, and more obsessed with black men because of their sexuality than a real desire to save them. The gender piece was irritating enough, but having the one family member that is very active in the abolitionist movement be an extremist? This is one case where fair and balanced goes too far in trying to tip the scales of “both sides are equally bad.” I am sure there were extremists like her in the movement, but since she is the only character so actively involved, I would have preferred a less extreme view point with this type of character being a minor side character, such as Ashton’s suitor Huntoon, a super minor supporting character, who presented the Southern extremists.
Also, I certainly remembered Elekah Bent from my previous read as the nemesis of Orry and George but with everything else going on in the novel, I am not sure why there was a need to add him as a life long nemesis rather than simply having a few random incompetent officers throughout their military careers. It seems like there is enough going on without having need a villain pursuing the family through generations.
Some random things I enjoyed included the reminder of how many of the Civil War military leaders had matriculated through West Point at the same time – George and Orry’s classmates were a who’s who of Civil War veterans. Promotions certainly worked differently back then as well. I knew not all of the current branches existed then but it was interesting to see how few there were, and that the top cadets wanted to go engineers while the infantry was reserved for the lowest ranked cadets – we have Air Defense Artillery for that now (just kidding, and I am quoting a West Pointer). There are plenty of people that want to go engineers (or logistics) due to the post military career options but infantry is definitely seen as prestigious by quite a few people, and the place to go to lead. So it was just an interesting historical shift from my perspective. Infantry is the “HOOAH” branch, and it definitely helps to be highly ranked to be placed there.
Despite all my complaints and issues, I still kind of want to pick up the sequel, Love and War (less sure about Heaven and Hell but I think that book was fine, I just hated the mini series because a character was missing).
Bingo Square: Home, Something, Home (John Jakes, born in Illinois; I am a Georgia resident but I still consider myself from Illinois originally)
Bingos 2.2 and 2.3 – Four Corners and Center, Diagonal