Note: there is a book by Michener published in in 1979 called The Waterman and I bet I read this: it's a condensed version of Chesapeake. Not having it in front of me, I'm going to hazard that it includes the historical chapters but leaves out the last few chapters about Watergate, which to me were this combination of compelling and weak. Strange combo, I know, but that's how I felt.
Chesapeake reminded me much of Hawaii and especially Centennial. Both Chesapeake and Centennial had similar pacing and characters. Both had an ending with a theme of environmental uncertainly and a clash between protectors of the environment and exploiters of the environment. Michener books always have weird endings; I think that's because there isn't an end to history, so Michener has to create some sort of end, and sometimes that end feels forced or false. Chesapeake in particular has a false feeling ending; the descendants are all grappling with Watergate and the environmental impact humankind was having on the Chesapeake Bay. (The prior chapters were about the race riots of the late 1960s; that felt slightly less forced). Here is what I mean about ringing false: by the time the novel ends, three of the families have lived in the area since the times of Jamestown - and know intimate details about the life and times of their ancestors. That makes for a great compare and contrast sort of ending, but I don't think it's really believable. I don't know, maybe it is true: maybe the same families have lived in Maryland for five hundred years, and the current lot know all sorts of tales of their far flung ancestors. But I'd like some proof.
Chesapeake by James A. Michener
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
At one point, a character towards the end of Chesapeake says "Oh Jesus... What a bad bargain we've made here." That seems to be an underlying theme of much of James A Michener's work. The last chapter in a Michener book, Chesapeake is no exception, is some sort of clash of descendants that has been building up since the first chapter (in some cases, since the earth began): in Poland, it's the clash between the Poles and the Russians; in The Covenant it's the clash between defenders of apartheid and the heroes who fought against it. Chesapeake and Centennial have very similar clashes, protectors of the environment and exploiters of the environment (among others: in Chesapeake, Watergate is almost a character in this last chapter, which is strangely compelling and also weirdly told; I guess in 1978 Watergate was fresh in everyone's mind, and even Michener was writing about it). He is always bringing all of these disparate forces and folks he's loving detailed for 1,000 pages together in these last pages for some sort of Michnerian götterdämmerung - although the world never completely burns down. He has to end the books somehow, because history doesn't end.
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