John Jakes' 'Charleston': vicissitudes, justice

August 04, 2002|By Tom Linthicum | By Tom Linthicum,Special to the Sun

Charleston, by John Jakes. Dutton. 480 pages. $26.95.

Let this be said about John Jakes -- the man knows his history, has an eye for detail, spins a good yarn and has developed a proven formula for commercial literary success.

Jakes, who has emerged as a modern colossus of historical fiction with 15 consecutive New York Times' best sellers to his credit, is at it again. For this summer reading season, he has labored and brought forth Charleston, an epic tale of this historic port city between the American Revolution and the Civil War as told through the turbulent lives of four generations of families.

The tale is part bodice ripper, part history lesson, part potboiler. From the tumultuous days of the nation's infancy through antebellum prosperity to the ruinous conflict between North and South, Jakes' characters partake in all the vicissitudes of life while also engaging in murder, treachery, blackmail, deception, miscegenation and all manner of plotting and scheming. Dark family secrets lie beneath the surface like ticking time bombs.

Look not for subtlety in these pages. Elegant turns of phrase, rich, evocative descriptions of people and places and finely drawn, complex characters are not to be found. Contrasts are stark; labels are clear.

For example, a particularly odious cousin of the protagonist family, born on Christmas Day, "came to resent the birthday of Jesus. It took precedence over hers; robbed her of attention and gifts."

At least it's easy to tell the heroes from the villains. There is also the virtue of consistency: Villainous families are consistently rotten to the core through succeeding generations, so it's easy to update your scorecard as family trees grow new branches.

All of this takes place against a Jakes trademark -- a rich tapestry of period detail. Jakes is a student of history and has been fascinated by the heritage of the Carolina Low Country since moving there nearly 25 years ago. Meticulously researched, this book is laced with historical references to fashion, food, architecture, technology, agriculture, politics, economics, religion, culture and music.

An impressive roster of historical figures -- Francis Marion, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, Frederick Douglass, to name a few -- mingle with Jakes' characters. Despite this all-star ensemble, Jakes laments not finding room for Edgar Allan Poe, stationed in Charleston as a young soldier, and Civil War diarist Mary Chestnut.

Jakes clearly depicts the pernicious evil of slavery, contrasting the brutal subjugation of African-Americans with the wealth and elegance their labor produced for much of Charleston's aristocracy. Foreshadowing a day of reckoning, one of his characters announces, "Charleston's become a cruel place. Underneath all the beauty, there's darkness. God will punish this city some day."

Punishment comes in the form of a destructive siege and occupation by Union troops. But just as murder and mayhem appear set to rule, Jakes pulls off an improbably happy ending, dispensing final justice to the wicked and uniting ardent abolitionist with unreconstructed rebel in rapid-fire order. If only Reconstruction had gone so well.

Tom Linthicum spent more than 25 years at The Sun as a writer and editor. He is an avid student and reader of American history.

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