Book Reviews

Book Review: Heaven and Hell by John Jakes

Heaven and Hell is the final book in the trilogy about the Civil War by John Jakes. In the series he introduced us to the Main family from South Carolina and the Hazard family from Pennsylvania. Many members of each family were followed on the various courses taken as the country was leading up to – and later fighting – the Civil War.

If there’s one complaint I have about Jakes’ novels, especially those in a series, it’s that too many times he seem to change the characters to fit the story he wants to tell. This novel is no exception as he seems to drop other stories and characters almost completely from the canvas to tell the story of two characters.

Here the war is over and life is attempting to go on. Charles Main finds that he cannot return to being a soldier as all Confederate troops are deemed traitors. It is a good story showing how these men suffered following the war, not really having a place in society or being able to work at what they knew. Charles tries to re-enlist under a fake name – several times – but is found out each time by a former West Point classmate known as Captain Venable. This is the first time I have ever seen Jakes use his trademark villain in a good way. Typically, Jakes’ villains are men who have been slighted by our protagonist – or had a perceived slight – and bear a grudge against them for the rest of their lives.

After being found out for the first time, Charles turns to riding with a trading company consisting of a man and his nephew to trade with the Indians. At first all is well, but soon Charles manages to offend an Indian known as Scar. Scar gathers together his dog soldiers and waits for a time when he can ambush the trading company, brutally murdering the man, his nephew, and the dog that accompanied them. Only Charles survives.

Later on in the novel, Charles is complaining about Venable holding a grudge against him for the killing of his mother and sister by Confederate soldiers when he was in no way involved. Another soldier points out to him that it is the same as his wanting to kill Indians simply because some of the Indians killed his trading partner.

This is probably one of the best moments of the novels, as Charles is speechless and I felt that way along with him. It was the first time the grudge story really has panned out to have a deeper meaning and impact.

The other story being told is the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Orry Main’s widow, Madeline, is living at the former Main plantation known as Mont Royal. Madeline is an octaroon, meaning her blood is 1/8 negro. She spends a great deal of time trying to help the freedmen in the area by giving them schooling and a fair wage for work. However, every attempt results in a backlash from white people in the area, including being banned from what has always been the Main family church.

Quite a bit of her story is told in diary form as she writes to her deceased husband. It is interesting and seems to flow a lot better than the Charles Main story which seems to be there because Jakes wants to tell the story about the Indians.

What is missing here are the rest of the characters we knew from the first two novels. Ashton Main – Orry’s sister and Charles’ cousin – returns for a bit just to stir up trouble. Brett Main married Billy Hazard and the two of them disappear to California early on and are not talked about in the novel until the very end. George Hazard was Orry’s best friend and has little to do in the novel until Jakes resurrects the presumed-dead Elkenah Bent who is hell-bent on destroying the families. George’s brother Stanley is briefly shown participating in the political maneuverings in Washington, and then finally getting a backbone and divorcing his harpy wife.

The other characters that suffer are Cooper Main and Virgilia Hazard. Their characters change so greatly from what they were in the beginning that it seems like they have been changed only for advancing the story in a certain direction, rather than having a real reason. Sure, Cooper lost his son when the ship they were trying to run the blockade in was sunk, but he throws away the rest of his family and acts the total opposite of the Cooper we knew in North and South.

Virgilia has also mellowed, although her transformation might be easier to digest. It sort of comes through as a mellowing with age and a growing appreciation for her family. However, because too many of the characters seem to change only to tell a particular point in the story, it still doesn’t feel genuine.

I like Jakes’ novels; I really do. His history mixed in with the fictional storytelling makes it easy to digest and learn. I think, however, he is better off when dealing with a stand-alone story rather than a series. It seems he decided what story he wants to tell and then changes the characters to suit it from one novel to another.

That’s not to say that Heaven and Hell is not a good book. It really shows how hard the Reconstruction period was on the South; how they were exploited by northern profiteers and politicians. It’s a good read and a fairly easy one. If it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have read it for the second time.

If you’re expecting a great resolution to the series in this novel, I don’t think you’ll be satisfied. The ending seems too forced; too rushed; too much happily-ever-after for all of the “good guys”.

Previous book in series (link): Love and War by John Jakes

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