Charleston by John Jakes (Book Review)

CharlestonCharleston by John Jakes

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I remember adoring the Kent family chronicles back in the 70’s, starting with The Bastard. It’s been a while since I’d read anything by John Jakes, so I picked up Charleston.

I learned a couple of things as a result of this book, but I didn’t learn them from the book.

This novel is very poorly placed in time. I kept having to jerk myself back to the Revolutionary War, because the constant references to the issue of slavery had me thinking I was reading about the Civil War. I’d be reading along, my thoughts all blue and gray, and then a reference to General Washington would yank me back. Slavery, slavery, slavery. At no time did anyone raise any other issue that lead to the Great Flipping of the Bird to King George. No mention of the Stamp Act. No mention of the Boston Port Act. No mention of the Quartering Act. No mention of either of two Currency Acts. No mention of the the increased taxes levied on colonies to pay for England’s disastrous French and Indian War. No mention of the Massachusetts Government Act, or the Administration of Justice Act, or the Quebec Act. No mention of the Proclamation of 1763, that prevented colonists from pushing farther westward. Certainly no mention of harbors and tea.

But it got me curious and I started looking around. It would appear “some historians” believe slavery was one cause of the American Revolution (those “some historians,” as far as I could dig, being limited to the book’s author–although he never comes right out and says so–and some guy on Quora). Their argument seems to center around Somerset v Stewart, a British legal case from 1772. However, England didn’t do anything to outlaw slavery or the slave trade until decades after its American colonies rebelled. Nowhere else do I find slavery mentioned as a cause of the American Revolution, and my son Monster the historian (M.A., specialty American and with a focus on civil rights, he knows his shit, folks) points out that our Constitution went out of its way to delineate how the slave population counted toward congressional representation — the Three-Fifths Compromise ratified by the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Poking deeper, I learned that four states had outlawed slavery prior to that (Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in 1777, 1780, 1783, and 1784 respectively), but at the federal level the United States, no doubt pragmatic about the money flowing in from the slave trade and slave labor, did not specifically mention slavery either way until the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted in 1865. Before that, the Constitution referred to slaves rather delicately as “other persons” and mentioned race not at all.

None of which supports the notion that the slavery issue contributed to the Revolutionary War, and most of which contradicts it. If anyone knows of a good academic source that says otherwise, both Monster and I would be intrigued.

The other thing I learned, by looking it up on my own, was that Carolina was one of the original thirteen colonies. I feel like I should have already known that, so now I’m even more annoyed with this book for shaming me.

Nobody likes so much exposition it feels like reading a history textbook, but who wants to read a book about a war in which none of the characters have any feelings or beliefs or even knowledge about what actually led to the goddamn war? There is a lot of action, as far as I got, but it still reads flat. Most of the characters have one motivating trait that exists in a vacuum; the arrogant asshole loyalist is an arrogant asshole loyalist because the story needs an arrogant asshole loyalist and he drew the short straw, readers are all gonna hate him, sucks to be him. The slutty greedy one is a greedy slut; the spunky one is spunky; the saintly slave friend is a saintly slave friend. That’s it. They don’t shape events and events don’t shape them. These same characters could just as easily have been plunked into the Spanish-American War or the Whiskey Rebellion or maybe even the Great Emu War of 1932 (that story is a howl; listen here ).

I am underwhelmed. Hang me for a deserter.

Bookshelves: historical-fiction, american-history, family-saga, abandoned

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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