If you’ve only seen the mini-series by the same name, you’re missing out on quite a lot. There is more of everything in John Jakes’ novel North And South: more characters, more intrigue, more story, more history.
In studying American History in school, and the Civil War, in particular, we are often given clinical reasons behind the war. I always found it hard to understand the climate of the times. Jakes translates it well in this novel. Beginning almost 20 years before the start of the Civil War, North And South tell us the story of two families: the Mains of South Carolina, and the Hazards of Pennsylvania.
The Mains are rice planters who own slaves. Though not harsh slave-owners, they nevertheless treat their people as property. Clarissa and Tillet are the parents, Cooper, Orry, Ashton, and Brett are their offspring.
Cooper is the eldest son, but he frequently clashes with his father, especially on the subject of slavery. Instead of managing the family’s rice plantation, Mont Royal, he begins his own very successful shipping company in Charleston.
Orry wanted a career as a soldier. He attends West Point after Cooper turns down the appointment to reach his dream. Fate dictates that he ends up managing Mont Royal – a consuming task especially after he fires the overseer. He has qualms about the slavery issue but also knows how much they rely on the labor to have a successful crop each year. He also is realistic enough to be very nervous about how the slaves would act towards their former masters should they ever be freed. He is a loner, whose one true love is another man’s wife.
Ashton is power-hungry politically. Having been cursed to be born a woman rather than a man, she manipulates men into doing her dirty work. She is powerfully jealous of her sister and anyone else who manages to have any good fortune and happiness. She marries James Huntoon, a rising star in the South’s political situation, figuring this is how she will become powerful as well.
Brett is the more practical sister. She takes over helping Orry manage the plantation after their father dies and their mother turns feeble. She asserts her independence, yet is much more a lady than her sister. She falls for Billy Hazard, but will the love they have overcome the turbulent times?
Charles Main is the ruffian cousin who lives with the family after his parents are killed. Blessed with incredible good looks, he manages to cruise by in life until challenged to a duel. It is only then that he learns just how much the family – and Orry in particular – care about him. He eventually lives Orry’s dream of having a soldier’s career. After he attends West Point, he battles Indians on the Texas frontier and distinguishes himself in the eyes of his commander, Robert E. Lee.
The Hazards are ironmasters in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. William and Maud are the parents, Stanley, Virgilia, George, and Billy are their offspring.
Stanley is much like Ashton Main in that he aligns himself with rising stars in the new political world, hoping to come up with a winner with an appointment in Washington. He fails miserably in his attempts at running the family’s ironworks, simply because he is too cautious and afraid to take risks. His wife is a shrew who pushes him into doing things against his own better judgment.
George attends West Point but strictly for education. He intends to give the service only the four years he is required to give. For better or worse, he decides to serve with his friend Orry, meaning that he sees battle in the war over Texas. He brings home an Irish-Catholic bride from Texas, who is not accepted easily into the Pennsylvania society. Since he has much more vision than his brother, George ends up in charge of the Iron Works.
Virgilia is a staunch abolitionist who uses any opportunity she gets to make trouble for anyone she perceives as the enemy. She falls for one of James Huntoon’s slaves while in South Carolina and helps him escape. Later he is killed in the Harper’s Ferry incident. This only serves to reinforce her deep hatred of anyone and anything southern.
Billy initially falls for the wild Ashton Main, but later turns to Brett when he sees her as being the more stable of the two. He attends West Point with a year’s difference between himself and Charles Main and enters the Engineering Division where he hopes to save enough to support himself and Brett. Billy proposes just before Lincoln is elected, setting in motion a great rift in the country. Can their love overcome the rift?
The two families’ futures become intertwined when Orry and George attend West Point Military Academy together and become fast friends. Along the way, they make friends whose names are familiar in history: Robert E. Lee, George McClellan, Tom Jackson, and George Pickett. Jakes intersperses these characters from history so well with the fictional characters in the novel that it gives the reader a sense of what the time was like.
I have always enjoyed history, and North And South is an excellent combination of the history of these turbulent times as well as a wonderful fictional story. The tension mounts throughout the novel as the tension is building in the country. Can these two families have their friendship survive? At times it doesn’t seem likely. Despite their own reservations about the peculiar institution of slavery, the Mains do not like outsiders coming in and criticizing their way of life. Likewise, the Hazards have trouble understanding how their friends -who are decent and moral people in every other sense of the word – can continue to subjugate other human beings based on the color of their skin.
There is turmoil and pressure on the friendship from inside of the family as well as outside of the family. One thing that is a trademark of Jakes’ novels is an embittered enemy holding a grudge and wanting to exact revenge throughout the story. Elkanah Bent is that character this time around, though Ashton and Virgilia do provide additional strain as a power-hungry southern belle and outspoken abolitionist respectively.
The families are great friends, spending summers together as well as entering into business together. Billy and Orry’s cousin Charles also attend West Point together. Romance blossoms between the two families, but can love really conquer all as the country is being torn apart?
This novel uses history to tell the story, but it also really shows how the tension was building in this country as the inevitable war approached. It’s easy to take a clinical look at the causes of the Civil War, but this helps us to have a real understanding of what was going on, as well as being entertaining and a great story. We know what the ending will be, yet I found myself hooked on every single page of the 803 page paperback novel.
Next book in the series (link): Love and War by John Jakes