Book Reviews

Book Review – North And South by John Jakes: Two Families, One Fate

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):

17 replies »

  1. As a self-motivated reader of history (I started reading about WWII when I was six), I always found history classes in elementary and middle school to be…disappointing. Everything was so antiseptically presented, and overly simplified. In high school, it depended on which teacher taught the unit: Mr. Brooks (an African-American guy) was a good lecturer but taught history in the “by rote” method; he taught the first unit (Colonial Period to 1877), and in the six weeks of summer school, he only got us to the beginning of Reconstruction.

    Mr. Cummings was a white guy who looked like he had just gotten out of college (he had actually been teaching for a while, but he had a boyish look and had the kind of energy and love for the topics he taught that made him look young). He was so good at teaching the second unit (American History from 1877 to the Present) that when Dade County Public Schools started its Dial-a-Teacher homework assistance program in conjunction with the public TV station it co-owned (WLRN-TV), he was one of several teachers from my high school chosen to be on-air instructors.

    I don’t like sounding like a conspiracy theorist, but sometimes I think the curriculum for teaching history in public schools (especially in former Confederate states like Florida) is deliberately designed to be bland, non-controversial, and politically conservative.

  2. I definitely think so. I know I’ve talked with friends who call it “The War of Northern Aggression” because that’s the way they were taught it. That’s why so many people hold Confederate soldiers up on pedestals and don’t see it as being racist. It’s only going to get worse too.

    We never made it past the turn of the 20th century really. I can’t tell you how many times through elementary school, junior high & high school we studied the Revolutionary and Civil Wars but never got into WWI and WWII. It was college before I got into classes on that and the Cold War

  3. Because Miami was (at the time) more of a blend of Florida natives, transplants from the North, Hispanics, and African-Americans, by the time I was in high school, we didn’t get the “War of Northern Aggression” spiel. And since Mr. Brooks, my History of the U.S. to 1877 teacher, WAS black, I’m reasonably sure that he would not have gone that route in any case.

    As far as History of the U.S. from 1877, Mr.Cummings got us to a point just past the Kennedy assassination and the start of the Vietnam War. I still have in my “files” a blank map of Europe in which we had to label NATO countries from that class.

    Because I took U.S. History during the summer between 10th grade and 11th to make room for electives in my regular schedule for my junior year, I had both classes back-to-back. Three hours in Mr. Brooks’ class, then lunch, then three hours in Mr. Cummings’ class, them homeward bound by 2:15.

    • Wow, that was some schedule. I had American history in 7th grade then again in 10th grade when it was AP American history. I had one year with Asian history and another year of European History. But none of my American History classes got past WWI

      • Summer school (I volunteered for it TWICE in high school) basically crammed a school year’s worth of class time into six weeks.

        I didn’t mind the schedule…heck, it got me out of my house five days a week during hot summers which would have been miserable for me otherwise. Mom was a great parent, but she was dating this Czech-American retired pilot who drank way too much and was abusive to everyone when he was inebriated…which was pretty much most of the time. He didn’t live with us, but for a long time he rented the townhouse next to us and then moved to Sebring (which, ironically enough, isn’t that far from where I live now). He was a tyrant and a bully, but Mom thought she could calm him down. I’m kind of hazy when he moved to Sebring (which meant I didn’t have to deal with him every day, just maybe a few days per month), but he hadn’t yet done so during the summer school session in 1981.

        The one thing I did hate was that summer school also coincided with the rainy season in Miami. I got soaked a few times while waiting for the bus in the mornings, plus I dodged thunderstorms even more times in the afternoons.

        Fun times!

      • I usually came up here at least two weeks every summer, so there was no way I was giving that up. I loved it back then. Amazing how with all that time we spent studying the Civil War in NY we never once talked about the Draft Riots. So much of our history is buried or glossed over.

  4. Mom and I didn’t have a set place for vacation to go to annually, so for me it was different. And I really needed to have two open class periods so I could take Yearbook (we didn’t have Newspaper Production & Editing my junior year) and Mixed Chorus SATB; if I didn’t go to summer school, I would only have had one elective slot open. Taking social studies courses over the summer just made sense in my situation.

    Had my home life been less full of drama, or had I not wanted to participate in extracurricular activities in high school, I still might have wanted to just stay home all summer. But because the 1981-1982 school year was the last one in which I had zero friends who drove, my summer would have been extremely boring.

  5. Oh, and regarding the Civil War: We didn’t discuss much the military aspects of the Civil War; the main focus was on the economic disparities between North and South. No draft riots, although I already knew about them from my own reading about the Civil War. To put it simply, I knew more about the Civil War in 1981 than my peers did, and some of them still don’t know anything about it, either.

  6. Alex and Patti:

    After reading your remarks, I have to say I agree that history, as taught in schools, is antiseptic and snooze-worthy. As a damn Yankee, I always thought the term “War of Northern Aggression” was a joke. I was probably well into college before I knew people had used the term seriously. I never heard of the “Lost Cause” until I read “Gone with the Wind.” Again, the idea that people bought into that crap or were taught that crap in school never occurred to me. In grade school, we sang “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldrin’ in his grave.” I like to think I emerged unscathed. I mean, economic disparity across the Mason-Dixon line aside, the Civil War was fought over the “states’ rights” to enslave human beings, on whose labor the prosperity of the elite depended.

    Oh, wait, that’s my inner Marxist speaking. That’s a whole different topic for another day. 🙂

    I’ve never read any of John Jakes’ books, but they were quite the thing when I was in high school. Great review, as always, Patti.

    • That’s what I’ve said to people who try to say it wasn’t about slavery it was about “states rights”. I used to have a number of issues that were never “states-rightsy” enough for them to go to war about except being able to enslave human beings who have a darker skin than them. Now I just block people like that – there’s no reasoning with them.

      I think the first I knew of the draft riots was the movie Gangs of New York – and I lived there! I knew a ton about the mafia, but nothing about the draft riots.

      • Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I could swear there was a section about the draft riots in our history textbooks. And I’ve never seen “Gangs of New York.”

        And anyone who says the Civil War wasn’t about slavery ought to take a gander at the succession documents. Gods bless the net. Those old white supremacists didn’t make any apologies for what they were doing.

      • I know. I’ve been reading Eric Foner’s book on Reconstruction and it’s so horrible what happened I had to stop reading – it was effecting me mentally and I’m white.

  7. And they also never apologized when, with help from Northern business entities, they rolled back the few gains that blacks had made during the all-too-brief period of Reconstruction during what is called the Redemption period of the South. We never were taught about Redemption here in Florida.

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