Synopsis: In the early 1600s, young Edmund Steed desperately seeks to escape religious persecution in England. After joining Captain John Smith on a harrowing journey across the Atlantic, Steed makes a life for himself in the New World, establishing a remarkable dynasty that parallels the emergence of America. This extraordinary tale intertwines stories of family and national heritage, joining together Quakers, pirates, planters, slaves, abolitionists, and notorious politicians, all making their way through American history in the common pursuit of freedom (Adapted from Goodreads).
Themes Explored: fiction, historical fiction, American history, founding of America, history of Virginia, Quakers, pirate, religion, religious persecution, Native Americans, death, life, family, slavery, tobacco growing, pirate attacks, the American Revolution, the Civil War, Emancipation, the Watergate scandal, poverty, industry, literary fiction
Review: Outside of college literature classes, I am not sure how many people read James Michener anymore. He wrote three of the bestselling novels in the 1960’s, after a string of successful books in the 1950’s. Michener exploded onto the literary scene in late 1947 when Rodgers and Hammerstein turned his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, into a smash hit musical and then a blockbuster film. By the 1970’s Michener perfected the art of the “saga” novel and twice ascended to the top of the bestseller list for the biggest selling book of the year. Centennial was the best-selling hardcover novel in America in 1974. Chesapeake was the number one selling hardcover novel of 1978. Both books did similarly well when released in mass market paperback.
A majority of the events of the novel occurs on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, specifically around the Choptank River. Devon Island is fictional; buts its approximate location would lie immediately north of Todds Point, about 3 miles southeast of the southern tip of Tilghman Island. Michener lived in St. Michaels while he wrote Chesapeake. The Quaker Meeting House that Michener refers to in the book, is actually Third Haven Meeting House, built in Easton in the 1680’s. It is the oldest Quaker meeting house in the United States and is still used occasionally to this day.
The Chesapeake Bay is a unique body of water in the world. Fed primarily by the Susquehanna River, the Bay has a mixture of salt and fresh water which changes concentrations with the seasons. The vast expanses of brackish water hold numerous amounts of shellfish and finned fish (based on personal experience, it also smells terrible when it rains). Wading birds and waterfowl inhabit the salt marshes. Along with the three main families followed in the novel, the Bay plays an important role in the narrative.
Michener begins the book by following the lives of the Powhatans, Choptank, and Nanticokes from the late 1600’s to the modern day (approximately the 1970’s, the decade Michener wrote the book). A Susquehannock man named Pentaquod ends up finding a new people on the eastern shore who establishes the dynasty whose descendants we follow throughout the book. The book continues with dramatic subplots detailing conflicts between Europeans, Indians, and Africans. Chesapeake follows follow three families: the Catholic Steeds, the Quaker Paxmore’s, and the godless Turlock’s as they navigate through piracy, sea travel, slavery, plantations, war, and the United States in Post-Vietnam.
Over the course of the book, Chesapeake covers four hundred years of history. Michener divided the novel into fourteen “episodes”, each with their own chapters. The first seven episodes concern the settlement of the Eastern Shore, first by Pentaquod, a peaceful member of the Susquehannock tribe. The Steeds settle on Devon Island and become landed gentry. While the Turlock’s occupy a lower socio-economic class and come from a long line of indentured servants. The Paxmore’s are Quakers who fled New England to escape religious persecution. Finally, the fourth family, the Caters, are the descendants of slaves. Michener uses these families as a way to explore how different belief systems shaped the evolution of the American Eastern Shore. Environmentalism underlies most of the narrative. Devon Island ends up eroding, despite the Steed family making every effort to keep it afloat. Three main themes play out over the course of the book: slavery, poverty, and industry.
As the book deals with the settlement of the Eastern Coast, slavery is an overriding theme. The wealthy Steeds become great landowners and one of the biggest slave owners in the colonies. Whereas the Paxmore’s become the first proponents of emancipation; the Choptank Quakers’ Association was one of the first religious organization to ban slavery. One of the main characters, Cudjo Cater, is captured in Africa and enslaved on the Steed plantation. He eventually buys his freedom and settles into the nearby township with a wife. However, the Cater family is forever affected by slavery, even after emancipation. Right before and during the American Civil War, the Paxmore’s form the Maryland part of the Underground Railroad to help escaping slaves reach free territory in Pennsylvania. All these tensions and struggles affect all the families in numerous ways throughout the centuries.
Poverty is illustrated best through the lives of the Turlock’s, who inhabit the marshland on the riverside. While they are the family most attuned to nature throughout the book, they live in a one bedroom shack originally built in the 17th century, and the adults have sexual relations within eyesight of the children. By the end of the book, several members of the Turlock’s pulled themselves out of poverty. By 1978 the head of the Turlock family is a wealthy real estate broker. Outside of the marsh, the other poor location is the area of the town called “The Neck”, which held all the freeman housing. Compared to the rest of the coast, the living standards are greatly reduced in The Neck.
Industry is explored in how each family chooses to build their life. Pentaquod settles on a clifftop which he considers paradise. Edmund Steed builds his familial estate on Devon Island. His descendants eventually own thousands of acres and flourish economically, at least until the Island erodes away. After being banished from Massachusetts, Edward Paxmore, a Quaker carpenter, constructs his house on a cliff overlooking the Choptank. With the help of the Indians, Edwards eventually learns to build boats out of necessity. Once he masters the art of building ocean faring vessels, his boat business becomes highly successful. The Caters struggle economically for a long time, until Big Jimbo Cater becomes a cook for an oyster harvesting skipjack. Through this job, he eventually saves enough to buy his own skipjack, employs his family, and becomes a successful captain. The Caveneys, who emigrated from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, easily assimilate and become central characters in the boating business subplots. Each family, in their own way, showcases how hard work and determination can lead to success.
Religion runs underneath all the main themes in the book. Michener presents four religious perspectives in the book: Catholicism, Quakerism, Native American Mythology, and Atheism. Each family acts based upon their own religious beliefs, though the strength of the families’ convictions weaken with each generation. However, religion does not play as big a theme in the novel as the three listed above. Overall, Chesapeake is a great saga novel of a type that is not written today. While Michener is now highly degraded in literary circles, his books represent a great snapshot in history. He covers a lot of time in each novel but does not linger overly long on any one time period. At 1,024 pages (865 for the hardcover edition), Chesapeake requires a time commitment to get through, but it is a great read.
Chesapeake, 2003, Dial Press (first published 1978), ISBN: 9780812970432