Saturday, May 13, 2017
"LOVE AND WAR" (1984) Book Review
LOVE AND WAR (1984) Book Review
I have stumbled across my share of "Best Civil War Novels" lists on the Internet. I have yet to come across a list that includes John Jakes' 1984 novel, "LOVE AND WAR".
Back in the 1980s, Jakes created his second major literary series, a trilogy about two wealthy American families during a period of thirty years during the 19th century. The first novel, "NORTH AND SOUTH" (1982) focused on the experiences of the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina between the years 1842 and 1861. "HEAVEN AND HELL" (1987), the third novel, is set between 1865 and 1877. But the second novel, "LOVE AND WAR" focused on the two families' experiences during the Civil War.
The trilogy began when George Hazard, the son of a wealthy iron industrialist; and Orry Main, the son of a South Carolina rice planter; first met on their way to West Point in the late spring of 1842. The pair quickly became life-long friends, as they survived four years at the military academy, the Mexican-American War, and nearly a decade-and-a-half of political strife over the issue of slavery. Due to George and Orry's friendship, their two families became very close over the years. By the end of "NORTH AND SOUTH", George's younger brother Billy had married Orry's younger sister, Brett. Orry and the love his life, Madeline Fabray LaMotte, finally reconciled after years of clandestine meetings, when Madeline left her venal husband Justin Lamotte, after seventeen years of marriage.
However, following the outbreak of the Civil War, the friendship and familial connection between the Hazards and the Mains became tested when the Civil War begins. "LOVE AND WAR" began two weeks after "NORTH AND SOUTH" ended - in late April 1861. By the beginning of "LOVE AND WAR", the two families consist of:
*George Hazard - one of the protagonists, who is a former Army officer and like his father, an iron industrialist
*Constance Flynn Hazard - George's Irish-born wife and an abolitionist
*Stanley Hazard - George's older brother, who left the iron trade to become a politician
*Isobel Truscott Hazard - Stanley's shrewish and social-climbing wife
*Virgilia Hazard - George's only sister and die-hard abolitionist
*Billy Hazard - George's younger brother and Army officer
*Brett Main Hazard - Orry's youngest sister and Bily's new bride
*Orry Main - one of the protagonists, who is a former Army officer and like his father, a rice planter
*Madeline Fabray LaMotte Main - Orry's wife and widow of Justin LaMotte
*Cooper Main - Orry's older brother and owner of a shipping company
*Ashton Main Huntoon - Orry's younger sister and die-hard secessionist
*Charles Main - Orry's young cousin, who had resigned from the U.S. Army to join the Confederacy Army
*Judith Stafford Main - Cooper's wife, who also happens to be an abolitionist
*James Huntoon - Ashton's husband, who is also a secessionist and attorney
*Clarissa Brett Main - Orry's ailing mother
The novel not only featured the viewpoints of the Hazards and Mains, but also their friends, lovers, slaves and one Elkhannah Bent, an Ohio-born Army officer who had become an enemy of George and Orry during their years at West Point. Bent even became an enemy of Charles Main, when the two had served together on the Texas frontier in the late 1850s. the outbreak and chaos of war, along with Bent's determination to survive, failed to put a damper on his desire to strike back at George, Orry, Charles and the other members of the two families.
I noticed that most of "LOVE AND WAR" focused on the Civil War's Eastern Theater. Aside from taking readers to the political offices, salons and the military hospitals of Washington D.C. and Union Army camps; the novel also explored the Union and Confederate home fronts in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania - the Hazards' hometown; and the Mains' plantation, Mont Royal, in the South Carolina low country. Jakesk also explored various historical and violent incidents on the homefront through his characters - especially the Southern bread riot that broke out in 1862 Richmond, and the 1863 New York City draft riots. Although both George and Orry become military officers again after thirteen-to-fourteen years as civilians, their wartime experiences as military bureaucrats prove to be sources of great frustration for both of them. Stanley Hazard's role as a political aide with the War Department gave readers a look into the politics of wartime Washington D.C. Readers learn about politics in wartime Richmond via the eyes of Ashton Main Huntoon, who also happened to be a politician's wife. Through Virgilia Hazard, readers not only discover what countless number of women - including a future famous author - experienced as a wartime nurse. Cooper Main joined the Confederate's Navy Department at the beginning of the war and through him, readers learned about the Confederates' efforts to construct new warships in Great Britain's shipyards. Through characters like Charles Main and Billy Hazard, readers explored the horrors of Civil War combat and prison camps in Maryland, Pennsylvania and especially Northern Virginia. Only through the Elkhannah Bent character were readers able to experience the war's Western theater via the Battle of Shiloh and Union occupied New Orleans.
If I must be honest, I am rather surprised that Jakes' trilogy, especially "LOVE AND WAR", became major bestsellers. From the recent comments and reviews I have read on the Internet, I came away with the feeling that many found "LOVE AND WAR" difficult to read. In fact, many readers have complained that the novel featured too many characters. I found this complaint rather odd, considering that novels with several major characters have been the norm during the 20th century. And when did the number of characters suddenly became a detriment to a good novel? Following my recent reading of "LOVE AND WAR", I must admit that I find this opinion hard to accept. And then there is the matter of the novel's content. I have discovered that a good number of critics seem unwilling to accept Jakes' mixture of historical drama and melodrama. And so, I found myself scratching my head at another criticism. Melodrama and history in a novel? These two elements have been the norm in many historical dramas - including the still highly rated "GONE WITH THE WIND" and the "POLDARK" series. When did the mixture of history and melodrama become unacceptable?
When it comes to the mixture of history and melodrama, I believe John Jakes has proven to be one of the few novelists who did it best. In "LOVE AND WAR", I thought he did an excellent job in conveying both the personal and historic experiences of his major characters - especially during a highly charged period in American history like the Civil War. Not only did the author explore his characters' desires, loves, fears, personal tragedy and ambition; he did so while exploring the historical background of the novel's setting. I just realized that aside from a handful of history books and documentaries, I managed to learn a great deal about the United States' Antebellum period, the Civil War and the post-war era from the NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy, due to Jakes' meticulous research and skillful writing. And about human nature.
Four of the most interesting aspects of "LOVE AND WAR" proved to be the wartime experiences of Billy Hazard, Brett Main Hazard, a former slave named Jane and Charles Main. Being an Army engineer, Billy Hazard did not participate in any battles, although he did witness a good deal of danger. Billy started out the novel as an Army officer loyal to the Union cause, but lacking any sympathy toward abolition or African-Americans - unlike Virgilia, Constance or George. Despite spending the first half of the war maintaining this attitude, it took capture by Confederate forces and a harrowing period as a prisoner of war inside Libby Prison for Billy to even understand what it means to be treated cruelly, let alone be under the complete control of another. And it took his experiences with black troops during the war's last year to make him view them more than just subhuman, children or victims.
Ironically, his wife, Brett Main Hazard, went through a similar metamorphosis on the home front. Being the daughter and later, the sister of a South Carolina planter, Brett had difficulty adjusting to life in the North and the resentment of the Hazards' neighbors. Throughout the novel, Brett's encounter with several people during the war forced her to question her own priviledged Southern upbring through a series of stages. First, she helped her impoverished sister-in-law, the hardcore abolitionist Virgilia Hazard, regain some kind of physical attraction. George and Constance Hazard's sponsorship of a local orphanage for Southern black children displaced by the war led Brett to develop compassion for them - something she had failed to do with her family's slaves back at Mont Royal. The orphanage also led to a surprising friendship with the orphanage's founder, a New England-born black man named Arthur Scipio Brown.
Another interesting character proved to be a young African-American woman named Jane, who found herself living at Mont Royal during the war. Jane was never owned by the Mains. She was introduced as a recently emancipated slave, who was accompanying her aunt, an elderly free black woman named Aunt Belle Nin, to the Union lines. Due to Aunt Belle's illness, the pair sought brief refuge at Mont Royal, due to the elderly woman's friendship with Madeline Main. Following Aunt Belle's death, Madeline asked Jane to remain at Mont Royal and educate the plantation's slaves in preparation for the end of the war. Madeline, who was biracial, foresaw the end of slavery and wanted the slaves to be prepared for the chaos of a post-war South. Through Jane's eyes, readers saw how the institution of slavery affected her fellow African-Americans throughout generations. What made Jane's role in the novel so interesting is that readers were given a closer and more personal look at the slaves as human beings than he ever did in the trilogy's first novel, "NORTH AND SOUTH".
Charles Main's wartime experiences did not bring about a social and political metamorphisis as it did his cousin and best friend, Brett and Billy Hazard. Even as a child, he never really shared his family's racism or dismiss the ugliness of slavery. On the other hand, readers were granted an exploration of life within the ranks of the Confederate Army through his eyes. Looking back, I realized that Charles' experiences pretty much served as a metaphor for the novel's title. Charles had began the story as a man who had already gained experience as a military officer during his four years at West Point and another four years as a U.S. Army officer on the Texas frontier. He spent his early months of the war not only trying (and sometimes failing) to instill a sense of professionalism to the Confederate soldiers who served under him. Charles' sense of professionalism also included a belief that soldiers had no business getting involved in a serious romance. As far as Charles was concerned, serious romance prevented a soldier from being distracted and doing his job. This belief was immediately challenged after meeting a young and witty Virginia widow named Augusta Barclay, who owned a farm in Northern Virginia. Despite his efforts to maintain an emotional distance from Augusta, Charles' feelings for her deepened. And as the war began to take an emotional toll upon him, Charles began to question the logic of continuing his romance with Augusta. If anything, Charles' professional and personal experiences during the war proved to be a prime example of Jakes' ability to skillfully weave both history and melodrama together.
I do have a few complaints about "LOVE AND WAR". One, most of the novel's setting seemed to be focused solely on the war's Eastern Theater - with scenes and chapters set along the Eastern Seabord. Villain Elkhanah Bent's participation in the Battle of Shiloh and his assignment in New Orleans gaves readers a view of the war's Western theater. Also, at least three characters ended up in the New Mexico Territory by the end of the war. But a part of me wished that Jakes had allowed more scenes away from the East - as he had done in "NORTH AND SOUTH".
But my complaint about setting is minor in compare to another issue - namely the novel's villains. I will give Jakes kudos for managing to portray them with the same kind of complexity as he did his protagonists. I suspect that he may have somewhat succeed with Elkhannah Bent, Ashton Huntoon and Stanley Hazard. The author went further in revealing their desires, fears and ways of dealing with their personal demons and crisis. However, both Bent and Ashton still seemed less rounded than in compare to the protagonists. James Huntoon had been portrayed as a minor villain in the 1982 novel. But once his marriage fell apart, thanks to Ashton's love affair with a smuggler and political conspirator named Lamar Powell and his career within the Confederate government stalled, Huntoon ceased to be a villain and Jakes portrayed him with a lot more sympathy.
Jakes' portrayal of the Mont Royal slave named Cuffey began with some level of complexity, as the character expressed his anger over being considered the Mains' property. But not much time had passed before Jakes had reduced Cuffey to a one-note thug and bully. I look back at Forest Whitaker's portrayal of the character in the 1986 miniseries, "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" and found myself wishing that the literary version of the character had been portrayed in a similar manner. Jakes' portrayal of Isabel Truscott Hazard remained as static as ever. Although Jakes seemed willing to portray Stanley with more complexity, he kept Isabel as the one-note vindictive shrew throughout the novel - with the exception of one scene in which she discovered Stanley's affair with a tawdry actress. As for the Lamar Powell character, he struck me as a one-dimensional rogue with a cruel and controlling streak. Granted, Jakes did allow one sequence featuring Powell's point-of-view. But that could not save the character for me.
I cannot say the same about George's older brother, Stanley Hazard. Jakes seemed a lot more sympathetic toward Stanley in "LOVE AND WAR" than he was in the preceeding novel. Stanley did not become a better person. His views of his brother George remained as resentful as ever, despite his own success in politics. And his support of the Radical Republicans and their pro-abolitionist views was at best, a hoax on his part in order to further his career. And yet, Jakes seemed more than willing to portray Stanley with a bit more sympathy and more complexity.
On the other hand, I found it odd that Jakes was willing to be more flexible with Stanley's character, but he could not do the same for the character's only sister, Virgilia Hazard. Unlike other fans of Jakes' saga, I have never regarded Virgilia as a villain and I never will. I do not regard her as perfect. And she is guilty of killing a wounded Confederate officer who had the bad luck to share the same name as her former lover, a fugitive slave named Grady who had been killed during John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. But I can never regard Virgilia as a villain. One, I share her political views . . . very strongly. Two, I find her family's unwillingness to allow Virgilia to be herself rather frustrating. I suspect that their dismissal of her politics - due to their own conservatism and her gender - had a negative effect on her character. And three, I have noticed that Jakes' negative portrayal of Virgilia seemed to have spread toward those historic figures that share her politics - namely the Radical Republicans.
I realize that the Radical Republicans were not perfect. But not all of them were not as bad as Jakes had portrayed them. Not once have I ever sensed the author's willingness to portray them with any kind of sympathy or understanding. He seemed willing to criticize their behavior and policies, yet he avoids criticizing moderates such as President Lincoln like the plague. In once scene, Brett Hazrard had learned from her brother-in-law Stanley about the Republican Party's plans to exploit the freed slaves' gratitude over being emancipated after the war. I can only wonder if Jakes was accusing all of the Radical Republicans (including men like Thaddeus Stevens) for this willingness to exploit former slaves or fake abolitionists like Stanley and Isabel Hazard. Were all Radical Republicans - save for Virgilia - fake abolitionists? And was he trying to convey to readers that Virgilia was blind to the machinations of the Radical Republicans? Or was Virgilia simply a victim of Jakes' overall negative attitude toward the Radical Republicans? Judging from what I have read, I can only conclude the latter.
In regard to historical accuracy, I can only account for one major example in the novel. It features an assassination plot hatched by Lamar Powell, along with the Huntoons and a few others against Confederacy president Jefferson Davis. Needless to say, this never happened. However, dislike and/or hatred of Davis did exist within the Confederacy. But aside from this story arc, Jakes painted a realistic portrait of the Civil War.
"LOVE AND WAR" is probably one of the finest Civil War novels I have ever read. The novel really gives readers a wide range view of war through the eyes of the Hazard and Main families and those with close connections to them. More importantly, Jakes managed to provide readers with a realistic portrait of the Civil War filled with a good deal of personal drama, humor, brutality, euphoria and tragedy. It is a shame that this novel is so underrated by book readers and critics today, because I thought it was simply superb, despite the few flaws it might possess. Who knows? Perhaps one day it will be universally appreciated again.