Book Reviews

John Jakes Brings the Immigration Experience to Life in His Novel Homeland

In the Afterword of his novel, Homeland, John Jakes explains that he purposely had this novel pick up in the year 1891, the same year that the final novel of his Kent Family Chronicles series concludes. The Kent Family Chronicles was originally designated his Bicentennial Series with the idea of bringing the history of a family from the United States’ inception through to the celebration of the Bicentennial in 1976.

However, by the final novel it felt as if Jakes was becoming tired of these characters, as well as abruptly manipulating events and changing some histories to make the characters fit a story he wanted to tell.

In Homeland, Jakes gets a fresh start with a fresh slate of characters. It also draws in the new perspective of the immigration experience into this country.

The story mainly follows the character of Pauli Kroner, a young German street-urchin who is dispatched to America once his Aunt falls ill. After a perilous journey, he lands at the Chicago doorstep of his uncle, Joseph Crown, who has made his fortune in this country brewing beer. Pauli Americanizes his name to Paul Crown, like his uncle. After a series of unsuccessful attempts at schooling and working in his uncle’s brewery, Paul lands squarely in the awakening motion-picture industry.

Throughout this time Jakes writes in detail of the peripheral characters in Paul’s world. From his progressively-thinking Aunt Ilsa, to his cousins Joe Jr, Fritzi, and Carl, to friends found along his life’s path, all the characters are given great depth and detail. The friction in the Crown household is very believable as Ilsa and Joe grow older and begin to look at situations differently. It’s also a very hard time to add a new cousin to the mix, and Paul walks into what is a house about to fall apart.

The history and setting of the times is given great attention. As a socialist and unionizing movement crossed the country, it is easy to sympathize with many of the workers. How the railroad magnate Pullman essentially enslaved his workers by keeping them perpetually in debt to him is explored through Joe Jr.’s bohemian girlfriend, Rosie French.

Historical characters dot the canvas as well, a trademark of Jakes’ novels. Teddy Roosevelt is featured prominently as the country goes into a war against Spain in Cuba. There is Eugene Debs and his involvement in the union movement; Hearst, Edison, Barton, Addams. They are all scattered here in very relevant context that brings the history of our country to life.

Throughout it all, though, there is Paul. Having fallen in love with Juliette Vanderhoff, the only daughter of a meat-packing magnate, he suffers the loss of the love of his life as well as disillusionment with the new country. Will he forego America for a job opportunity in England? Or will love inevitable conquer all?

What really resonated with me reading the novel at this time is the similarity between many of the issues surrounding the Spanish-American war and our most recent conflict with Iraq. Many of the events of the past year seem synonymous with events which led to that conflict. Are we just repeating history? It sure seems like it.

Reading of the contrasts between those well-to-do in the country against the working-class who essentially broke their backs working for the rich man and were discarded without a thought when they couldn’t work any longer, certainly puts the problems of today’s working class in perspective. Although, it does seem as if things are returning to the situation portrayed in this novel. When the worker dies, even if it is while doing work for the company, his widow and children are almost immediately evicted from the company-provided housing with no recourse.

All this adds to Paul’s disillusionment with all of the promise America seemed to hold for him as he made the perilous crossing. The changes of feeling that he has do not come on abruptly, but feel perfectly natural as various events occur. The same is true of many of the other characters, with a few exceptions. Most of these involve background characters like Rosie French, and it doesn’t take away from the overall tone of the novel, but it does keep it from getting five stars.

My other complaint is the issue of too many coincidences. While it’s very conceivable that Paul, as a correspondent being sent to film the impending war in Cuba, and his Uncle Joe, who has secured a military appointment from the White House, would run into each other in Cuba, there are other coincidences which seem too forced. Force to separate, Juliette marries a department-store magnate. When he chooses to have a little something on the side, who does he end up with but Rosie, the old girlfriend of Paul’s cousin. When Rosie is working as a songstress, who ends up working at the same place but a friend of Paul’s from his Atlantic crossing. These coincidences feel a bit too contrived to ring true and do take away a bit from the novel.

The hardcover is 960 pages long, so this is not a short or easy read by any means. Still, it does give a terrific perspective of the time period and brings it all to life. I think Jakes did good putting the Kent family to rest and starting off with a whole new slate. If you’re willing to put the time into it, it’s a pretty good read.

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