John Jakes – North and South

North and SouthThe worldwide known trilogy of the civil war in the States. I remember when I was a kid and I watched it with my parents and sister, and it seemed that “everyone watched it.” It was the first time I heard about the civil war in USA – and about the fact that civil wars exist at all. It was incomprehensible for me at that time that people from one nation could fight each other. But then again, the concept of war – any kind of war – is still a little hard to gasp for me – but let’s leave my absolute fear of wars out of it.

I read the book – in Polish – a long time ago, when I was in high school. Recently I took upon reading this in original English – a bulk of 810 pages in very little print. I am a little ashamed to admit that it took me over a month. And this is coming from someone who used to read a whole fantasy trilogy in about a week – and each book contained about 700-800 pages. I guess this is because I a) don’t have that much time nowadays, b) was reading in English, thus not my native tongue and c) had problems adjusting to the very small print. But enough about that. Let’s begin.

As most people know, the trilogy, with the first part titled “North and South”, is about a friendship between a Southerner and a Northerner. The friendship began before the civil war broke out – in 1842 to be exact – and lasted for many years, despite the circumstances. Orry Main – the Southerner – and George Hazard – form Pennsylvania – met on the way to West Point Military and became best friends there. As the novel progresses, we get to know their families – who are bonded by friendship, too. The first part lasts through the events leading to the war, and ends with the breakage of it. It covers so many stories and threads that it makes it hard to say what it is about, beside what I already did. So let me stop now and move to my opinion.

First of all, there are a lot of characters. At first it was a little annoying and hard to remember them all – who was whose sister/brother/mother/cousin. The large numbers of characters and the time of action – almost 20 years – make it hard to develop the characters deeply. Somehow, it didn’t bother me, though. I, who am a fan of complex and well-developed characters – who sometimes can be attracted to them more than to the story they’re in – say that it didn’t bother me that the characters were not well developed. I guess it’s because of the story itself.

The story is – for me – fascinating. It covers a lot of different stereotypical attitudes, from fanatic abolitionists, to fanatic Southerners ready to defend slavery at all costs. It also has great villains. Virgilia Hazard, for whom I always had a soft side solely because she was “on the right side” – even though she went crazy and extreme. Ashton Main, who was evil just for the sake of it. And the (in)famous Elkanah Bent, another one inexplicably evil. Again, in a different book I would have a problem with his weird desire for revenge and pure, unexplained rage and cruelty. Here, I don’t. I’m not sure why. The black-and-white characters don’t move me – usually they annoy me a little – but here I can only say they’re “great villains.” Maybe because it has sentimental values for me – TV series from my childhood etc. – or maybe it has become a cult novel now? Not sure.

By the way, the TV series is not what I wanted to write about, but let me just point out two things. They got some beautiful actresses to play the female leads – Brett, Constance, Madeline… They were stunning, and I’m saying that being a straight woman. The other thing – the outfits. How I adored to look at the fancy dresses and balls. And I’m not even “that kind of girl” – usually not paying much attention to what I wear. But in this series – yes, I could just watch this solely for outfits, even if it didn’t have any sound. Not sure why.

I must admit I’m not quite certain what to say about the novel besides what I already did. Did I like it? Sure I did. It had some great stories. It had drama. It had romance and adventure. It had political and historical explanations mixed into lives of fictional characters. It portrayed slavery in a realistic way (in my opinion). It also had some great quotes about the civil war. It asked a question of how this could have happened and tried to answer it. It made me wonder – again – about the nature of war. It was, simply put, fascinating, despite the flaws. But honestly I don’t really want to discuss the flaws this time, let’s just leave it at that.

Now I’m waiting impatiently to get my hands on the second part!


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