Saga Master Launches A New America Drama
POSSIBLY, John Jakes doesn't even know the definition of the word "small."
And even if he does, Jakes, the author of such historical sagas as "North and South" and "The Kent Family Chronicles," certainly must prefer everything big.
His newest novel, "Homeland," has a cast of thousands, a scope of a decade, and the hopes of every dreamer. Physically, it weighs in at three pounds and almost 800 pages.
But it works. Fans already familiar with Jakes's meticulous research and obvious love of history will again appreciate his ability to keep such a staggering amount of material controlled and - with a few exceptions - lively and interesting.
"Homeland" is the first in a proposed cycle of books about modern America. It begins in 1891, when "The Kent Family Chronicles" concluded. Young Pauli Kroner, a kitchen worker in Berlin, struggles to provide for himself and his dying aunt, but Pauli is fortunate - he has a rich uncle in that magical land America, in a city that must be a dream - Chicago.
After his aunt dies, Pauli makes the endless and frightening crossing to America, all the while struggling to survive, to escape bullies, and to learn a new language. He hopes his troubles will be over once he reaches America. But it takes months of hardship, menial jobs, and rugged travel before he reaches his rich Uncle Joseph Crown, a beer baron.
Once in Chicago, Pauli becomes Paul Crown and gets to know the other members of his uncle's rigidly-run household: Joe Junior, the oldest son, who rebels against his father by embracing the growing socialist movement, and Ilsa, Paul's aunt, whose outward compliance hides her own growing sense of independence.
And what would a saga be without a love interest - and complication? Here it's provided by Julie Vanderhoff, whose meat-packing millionaire father detests all German "foreigners."
Paul hates the school his uncle insists he attend and likes the beer business no better. What does fascinate Paul is a stranger's talk about pictures - the ability to take pictures and actually make them "move." "Such nonsense!" everyone says.
As the years pass in the novel, Jakes introduces real people and events from the times - everyone from an ambitious Theodore Roosevelt and a determined Clara Barton of the Red Cross to a surprising Thomas Edison.
Drawing in on the close of the century (the book ends in 1900), Paul and his camera are pulled to a strange, violent war in Cuba - and into the beginning of a new and uncertain century.
Sometimes, in his enthusiasm to capture everything, Jakes overwhelms the reader. Anyone who ever walked the American earth between 1890 and 1900 seems to get his or her paragraph of fame. Mentioning certain historical characters seemed natural in the book (you couldn't very well go to Cuba without mentioning Roosevelt or Clara Barton), but the inclusion of some others seems forced.
Still, that's an error of optimism. And that feeling of hope enriches and invigorates "Homeland."
"Perhaps it's folly to write a novel about hope in a time of profound national confusion, even despair," Jakes writes in the afterword. "Hope brought my grandfather ... and millions of others. Surely that hope was in some ways uninformed; naive, sentimental. Given so much freedom, an American could be as cruel ... as the next. If not more so. Some went home, disillusioned. But more stayed; many more. Hope was in the air. I hope Americans will be able to say that again someday."