Favorite Pre-Gilded Age American History Books

Below is a list of my favorite books that covered the history of the United States from the late British Colonial period to the end of the U.S. Civil War:

FAVORITE PRE-GILDED AGE AMERICAN HISTORY BOOKS

1. “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” (2014) by Edward E. Baptist – This book centers on how slavery and the cotton industry helped develop the rise of U.S. capitalism.

2. “1861: The Civil War Awakening” (2011) by Adam Goodheart – This book depicts the last months of the United States’ Antebellum period and the first months of the U.S. Civil War.

3. “1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See” (2008) by Bruce Chadwick – The book focuses on the historical events in the United States during the year, 1858.

4. “Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (1997) by Annette Gordon-Reed – This book won the Pulitzer Prize for its in-depth exploration of President Thomas Jefferson and one of slaves, Sally Hemings.

5. “The Town That Started the Civil War” (1990) by Nat Brandt – This book is an in-depth study of Oberlin, Ohio during the 19th century and its role in one of the most famous slave rescues in U.S. history.

6. “Slavery and the Making of America” (2004) by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton – This book is a detailed account of the history of slavery in the U.S. from the Colonial period to the end of the Civil War.

7. “The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience” (1981) by J.S. Holliday – This book is an in-depth study of the California Gold Rush between 1848 and 1855.

8. “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War” (2018) by Andrew Delbanco – This book focuses on slavery and especially the abolition movement from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War.

9. “John Adams” (2001) by David McCullough – This book is a biography of President John Adams and won a Pulitzer Prize.

10. “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad” (2015) by Eric Foner – This book is a detailed account on the history of the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement in New York City.

11. “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin – This biography is about the life of President Abraham Lincoln and the more prominent members of his Cabinet before and during the Civil War. It won both the Lincoln Prize and the inaugural Book Prize for American History of the New-York Historical Society.

12. “A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North” (1976) by John Hope Franklin – This book is an account of the experiences of Southern travelers in the Northern states during the years before the Civil War.

“TAP ROOTS” (1948) Review

“TAP ROOT” (1948) Review

I am sure that many are aware of Mississippi-born Confederate soldier-turned-Unionist Newton Knight and his formation of the “Free State of Jones”, which opposed Confederate forces during the U.S. Civil War. I first heard about Knight and his men while watching Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary, “THE CIVIL WAR”. But I had no idea that knowledge of this little corner of Civil War history went back even further.

Recently, Hollywood released a movie version about Knight and his followers in the 2016 historical drama, “FREE STATE OF JONES”. However . . . some seventy-four years earlier, a novel titled “Tap Roots”, which had been written by James H. Street, hit the bookstores. It told the story of a cotton planter, his family and a newspaper publisher; who had decided to remain neutral during the first year of the Civil War. Unfortunately, their decision to remain neutral led to disastrous consequences for the planter and his family, along with other local men who decided to follow them. Six years later in 1948, Universal Pictures made a movie adaptation of Street’s novel.

In a nutshell . . . “TAP ROOT” begins in the fall of 1860. Northern Mississippi plantation owner Big Sam Dabney and his son Hoab express concern over Abraham Lincoln’s election as the 16th president and the possibility of Southern states seceding from the Union. Both men begin to consider having Levington County in Lebanon Valley, location of the family’s cotton plantation, remain neutral if a civil war breaks out. Meanwhile, Hoab’s older daughter, Morna Dabney, becomes engaged with Army officer, Clay McIvor. Younger sister Aven is jealous, due to also being in love with Clay. As for Morna, local newspaper owner Keith Alexander becomes attracted to her.

Before 1860 ends, Big Sam dies, leaving Hoab in full control of the family’s neutral stance. And poor Morna has a riding accident, leaving her physically disabled and her engagement to Clay in jeopardy. Apparently, the latter is unable to maintain interest in a disabled woman and transforms his sexual interest to Morna’s younger sister, Aven. This gives Keith the opportunity to court Morna and help her recover from Clay’s rejection. However, Mississippi secedes from the Union, driving Hoab, Keith and the Dabney family’s Choctaw friend, Tishomingo, to organize Levington County’s neutral stance and secession from Mississippi.

There are aspects of “TAP ROOTS” that I found admirable. Alexander Golitzen’s production designs for a Northern Mississippi community between 1860 and 1861 struck me as pretty admirable, if not mind blowing. I could say the same about Yvonne Wood’s costume designs. However, there were some signs of 1940s fashion getting in the way, especially in the men’s costumes. The shoulders for Van Heflin’s jackets struck me as so wide that I found myself wondering if he had portrayed a time traveler from the 1940s. On the other hand, I found Winton C. Hooch and Lionel Lindon’s photography of the Southern California and North Carolina locations rather beautiful, thanks to its sharp color. And I thought director George Marshall did an admirable job with the film’s action scenes. I was especially impressed by the final conflict between Levington County’s “rebels” and the local Confederate forces. Between Marshall’s direction, Hooch and Lindon’s photography, and Milton Carruth’s editing, that final action sequence proved to be one of the film’s finer aspects.

If I must be honest, I did not have any problems with the performances featured in “TAP ROOTS”. Well . . . with most of the performances. Van Heflin gave an entertaining, yet commanding performance as the cynical newspaper editor Keith Alexander. Susan Hayward was equally commanding as Southern belle Moana Dabney, who endured her own trials while her own personal life fell apart. I did not care for the character of Clay McIvor, who struck me as something of a jerk; but I cannot deny that Whitfield Connor did a solid job in bringing his character to life. A very young Julie London really held her own as Moana’s younger sister, Aven Dabney, who managed to win Clay’s love from Moana, following the latter’s riding accident. Russell Simpson gave a entertaining performance as Moana’s colorful grandfather, Big Sam Dabney. Ruby Dandridge, mother of Dorothy Dandridge, gave a solid performance as the Dabneys’ housekeeper, Dabby. And I can say the same about Richard Long’s portrayal of Moana’s younger brother, Bruce Dabney; Arthur Shields as Reverend Kirkland; and Sondra Rogers as Shellie Dabney.

Despite the solid performances that permeated “TAP ROOTS”, two of them proved to be problematic for me. First, there was Ward Bond’s portrayal of Hoab Dabney, the Mississippi planter who not only inherit the family’s cotton plantation following his father’s death, but also the latter’s plans for a neutral Mississippi. I might as well say it. I found Bond’s performance to be an exercise in histrionics. I found this surprising since Bond has never struck me as a hammy acting. I wish that director George Marshall had found a way to rein in his acting – especially in one scene in which Hoab came into conflict with Moana over her past relationship with Clay McIvor. Alas, I thought Bond gave his hammiest performance in that one scene. The other problematic performance came from Boris Karloff, who portrayed the Dabney family’s Choctaw friend and retainer, Tishomingo. Mind you, Karloff gave a competent and subtle performance as one of the few sensible characters in this movie. And although many may have been put off by a British actor portraying a Native American, I was surprised to discover that Karloff had possessed both English and East Indian ancestry from both of his parents. I do not know if that gave the actor a pass, considering he still lacked any Native American ancestry. But if I really had a problem with Karloff’s performance is that he had portrayed Tishomingo as if the character was an Englishman. Even if Karloff had been portraying a white American, I still would have found his performance slightly problematic.

And what about the narrative for “TAP ROOTS”? Did I like it? Honestly? No. For me, the 1948 movie had failed to impress me. And this is a pity. I believe the problem stemmed from the movie’s original source, the 1942 novel. Author James H. Street had claimed he was inspired by the life of Newton Knight, when he wrote his novel. However, out of fear that Knight’s life was too controversial – namely his common-law marriage to former slave Rachel Knight – Street changed the nature of Knight’s story. The leading characters of “TAP ROOTS” were portrayed as members of Mississippi’s planter class. They opposed slavery – at least one or two characters had claimed this – but also owned slaves. But aside from the Dabneys’ “faithful” housekeeper Dabby, all other slaves were minor characters who barely spoke. If a movie is going to have its main characters claim to be anti-slavery, why ignore the topic for the rest of the film? Newton Knight’s grandfather was a major slave owner in northern Mississippi during the early 19th century. But Knight and his father had opposed slavery and became yeoman farmers who never owned slaves. Knight had been an Army deserter and managed to successfully opposed the Confederate authority in Jones County between 1863 and 1865. The Daubey family and Keith Alexander had no such success in “TAP ROOTS”. And I never understood this. Why did Street and later, the movie’s writers did not follow Knight’s Civil War experiences? What was the point of creating this story if they were not willing to closely follow Knight’s conflict with the Confederate authorities? Why not allow the Daubey family to be yeoman farmers who opposed slavery? Street and the filmmakers could have still kept out Newton Knight’s relationship with Rachel Knight.

Instead, I found myself watching a movie in which the main protagonists claimed they opposed slavery, yet practiced it and barely touched upon the subject for most of the film. The movie literally dragged its feet between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. And although I disliked Moana Dabney’s romance with the unworthy Clay McIvor, I found Keith Alexander’s “courtship” of her rather troubling. In Keith’s attempt to get Moana to forget about Clay, he resorted to bouts of manhandling her that seemed to border on sexual assault. For some reason, this reminded me of the Scarlett O’Hara/Rhett Butler relationship from “GONE WITH THE WIND”. And not in a good way. I also had a problem with the film’s portrayal of Lebanon Valley’s citizens. I noticed that the film seemed to portray them as mindless citizens who followed the Dabneys’ anti-Confederate stance without any real explanation. Like the Dabney slaves, Hoab’s followers lacked any real agency. Did author James Street, along with the filmmakers of this movie really lacked the courage to convey a story about how a Southern-born yeoman farmer and others from his class had successfully fought against the Confederacy? Or even exploring his anti-slavery stance? Back in the 1940s?

In the end, this is my real problem with “TAP ROOTS”. James Street and producer Walter Wanger took a historical event from the Civil War and used fiction – a novel and its Hollywood adaptation – to render it toothless. Its main historical figure Newton Knight had been transformed into a borderline hysterical and controlling cotton planter and member of the elite. The story failed to explore what led many of the planter’s combatants to follow him. The story barely touched upon the topic of anti-slavery, while including slaves as minor and background characters. And the movie dumped some tepid attempt at a “GONE WITH THE WIND” clone romance to keep movie goers interested. The movie had some virtues. But in the end, the movie vague adaptation of Newton Knight’s Civil War experiences simply fell flat. I hope and pray I am never inclined to watch this film again.

Sexist Tropes in “POLDARK” (2015-2019)

SEXIST TROPES IN “POLDARK” (2015-2019)

After watching the recent “POLDARK” television series for the past few years and reading the commentaries on these episodes and especially two particular characters – Demelza Carne Poldark and Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan – I have come to a disturbing conclusion. Despite the advent of the feminist movement, we still live a sexist society. Because our society remains sexist to this day, many people – women included – tend to view female fictional characters from a sexist view. This was especially apparent with the opinions of the two major female characters in “POLDARK”.

I have noticed that producer Debbie Horsfield and many of the series’ fans and critics seemed hellbent upon viewing both Demelza and Elizabeth through some Whore/Madonna trope. The situation regarding Demelza and Elizabeth strikes me as rather ironic. In many works of fiction and sometimes in real life, women of working-class backgrounds are usually perceived as sexually permissive or a “whore”. And women from a middle-class or upper-class background are usually perceived as virtuous or “the Madonna”. Not only do a good number of men apply this type of categorization upon women, other women do as well.

What made this trope ironic in “POLDARK”? The low-born Demelza – a miner’s daughter who became main protagonist Ross Polark’s servant and later, wife – has been regarded by many fans as virtuous or . . . “the Madonna”. In contrast, Elizabeth Chynoweth, a landowner’s daughter, has been more less labeled as a “whore” by said fans. Elizabeth, who had originally been courted by Ross before he left to serve in the British Army during the American Revolution, ended up marrying his cousin Francis Poldark. She later married Ross’ neighbor and nemesis, George Warleggan after Francis’ death.

I suspect that if Demelza had not married Ross and become the main protagonist, she would not have become so highly regarded by the fans. After all, she was low born. And she had sex with Ross, while serving his household as a kitchen maid. Right before their marriage. Ross ended up coercing her into marrying him in order to put a stop to the rumors about them. But I believe what really saved Demelza from being labeled “the whore” by readers and television viewers was the presence of the one woman she regarded as her nemesis – namely her cousin-in-law and Ross’ first love, Elizabeth Poldark Warleggan née Chynoweth. In the fans’ eyes, Elizabeth had made the mistake of rejecting Ross upon his return from the American Revolutionary War and marrying his cousin Francis. The literary Elizabeth honestly thought she had loved Francis and felt that Ross would not be the right husband for her. The recent series depicted Elizabeth as a woman torn by her feelings for Ross and slightly coerced into marrying Francis by her mother. To make matters worse, following Francis’ death, Elizabeth had married Ross’ nemesis, banker George Warleggan for his money. She needed his money to save the Trenwith estate for hers and Francis’ son, Geoffrey Charles.

I have a confession. Originally, I had believed this sexist view of both women stemmed from Demelza being the saga’s main female protagonist and Elizabeth’s rejection of Ross and her decisions to marry Francis and George. While Demelza was portrayed as this near perfect woman, especially in the series by show runner Debbie Horsfield; she was constantly praised by fans and critics for not only being “ideal”, but also the “ideal” mate for Ross. Elizabeth was portrayed with a more negative tone. As I had stated earlier, Debbie Horsfield changed the nature of her reason for rejecting Ross and marrying Francis. Horsfield used Demelza’s class origin as some kind of “Cinderella” fairy tale. Elizabeth was subtlety criticized for being a member of the upper-class and marrying Francis to maintain the lifestyle she was accustomed to. She was also portrayed as a woman who could not make up her mind about whom she wanted to marry. And then came that night of May 9, 1793.

Any fan of Winston Graham’s novels or the two television adaptations of his saga knows what happened that month – Ross and Elizabeth conceived his third child and her second – Valentine Warleggan. For years, many fans have asserted that Valentine’s conception was an act of consensual sex between the pair. The 1975-1977 series had portrayed Ross raping Elizabeth before pretending that rape never happened. The 2015-2019 series proved to be worse. It had Ross assaulting Elizabeth and on the verge of raping her. Before he could, she consented to sex at the last moment, transforming their encounter into a “rape fantasy”. Only Winston Graham’s 1953 novel, “Warleggan”, portrayed the encounter as rape. The author condemned Ross’ act for the rest of his literary series – something that many fans refuse to acknowledge.

Yet, even before the rape, Horsfield did her level best to set up sympathy toward Demelza and condemn Elizabeth at the same time. As in the novels, Ross had spent a good deal of time at Trenwith, helping the recently widowed Elizabeth deal with estate debts. But in the series, Demelza, her cousin-in-law Verity Poldark Blamey and the audience blamed Elizabeth instead of Ross; who seemed hellbent upon enjoying Elizabeth’s company as much as possible. Horsfield even added a scene in which Demelza made a snarky, yet hostile comment about Ross’ time at Trenwith that clearly blamed Elizabeth. And fans, to my utter disgust, cheered this moment of misogyny. Horsfield included another scene after the rape that featured an encounter between Demelza and Elizabeth in the woods (this also never happened in the novel) in which the former accused the latter of having a sexually illicit encounter with Ross. Again, I found myself disgusted by this obvious attempt by Horsfield to demonize Elizabeth for something that was never her fault. I felt equally disgusted by the fans’ cheers over Demelza’s words.

After the series’ adaptation of “Warleggan”, I thought I would see the last of this less than ambiguous handling of both Demelza and Elizabeth. I did not. Horsfield provided other examples of idealizing Demelza’s character and vilifying Elizabeth’s. In the novels that followed “Warleggan”, both women had committed major mistakes.

Elizabeth had supported her second husband George Warleggan’s attempt to force a marriage between her cousin Morwenna Chynoweth and a highborn vicar from Truro, the Reverend Osbourne Whitworth. Who proved to be an abusive husband. Mind you, Elizabeth was not solely to blame for this marriage. One, it was George’s idea and he was the one who finally coerced Morwenna into marrying Osbourne – at least in the series. Morwenna’s mother was the one who finally coerced her in the novel. But Elizabeth did support his action. It was probably the worst thing she truly ever did. Unfortunately, Horsfield felt this need to portray Elizabeth as a cold and scheming woman, who proved to be initially cold to her younger son Valentine. This never happened in the novel. Worse, Horsfield had transformed Elizabeth into both an morphine addict and alcoholic as a means to express the struggles she suffered as George’s wife. Again . . . this never happened in the novel. Why Horsfield thought this was necessary. I have no idea. The literary Elizabeth had found George’s paranoia over Ross rather stressful, but not to the point of her becoming an addict.

On the other hand, Horsfield had went out of her way to portray Demelza as this perfect lady, who sang whenever the screenplay allowed actress Eleanor Tomlinson to display her singing ability. There was a moment of Demelza racing across the countryside on horseback like some Harlequin Romance heroine in an effort to save her younger brother Drake Carne from being set upon by George’s bullies. Actually, some locals came to Drake’s rescue in the novel. There was also the matter of Demelza’s initial refusal to support her brother Drake romance with Morwenna. Demelza used the differences in Drake and Morwenna’s classes as an excuse for her lack of support, claiming she did not want to see both of them suffer in an unhappy marriage. I found this rather hypocritical, considering Demelza had married outside of her class. The series had went out of its way to avoid conveying Demelza’s unwillingness to contemplate the idea of Elizabeth’s cousin as her future sister-in-law. Although she had ended up supporting Drake and Morwenna’s relationship in the end, Demelza had never really let go of this wish of her brother marrying another woman of her choice instead of Morwenna, despite their happy marriage – at least in one of Winston Graham’s later novels. The one true terrible act that Demelza had committed was her brief affair with Royal Navy officer Hugh Armitage. Actually, they only had sex once. But once was enough, as far as I am concerned. Many viewers had excused Demelza’s infidelity as an act of bad writing from Graham or Horsfield. One blogger used Demelza’s rushed romance/marriage to Ross as excuse for her to experience an actual romance with someone of her age. And there were those who used Ross’ infidelity – namely the “eye for an eye” – as an excuse. Frankly, revenge sex has never struck me as a good excuse to cheat on one’s spouse, unless he was a serial abuser like the Justin LaMotte character from the “NORTH AND SOUTH” series . . . or Osbourne Whitworth. Ross may have been guilty of raping Elizabeth, but he had never ever abused Demelza in that manner. Also, I do not recall anyone slut shaming Demelza for her affair with Hugh.

I might as well be frank. Neither Demelza or Elizabeth were perfect. And neither were monsters. Both women possessed flaws and virtues. And yet . . . the fans and writer Debbie Horsfield seemed incapable of accepting both as complex women. Fans had behaved as if Demelza was the greatest thing since the invention of the wheel. They regarded Elizabeth as “the Whore of Babylon” or worse, a weak and manipulative woman. They seem incapable of facing Demelza’s faults – other than her naivety in late Season One. And they seem unwilling to acknowledge Elizabeth’s virtues. Horsfield’s writing for the series did a lot to support their reactions.

I find myself wondering if this inability to accept the ambiguity of both women stemmed from a refusal to acknowledge the idea of Ross Poldark harboring love for two different women at the same time. I do not know. Perhaps this scenario went against their ideals of “true love”, marriage and a Harlequin Romance-style story. The unfortunate thing is that producers like Debbie Horsfield of the current series and the producers of the 1970s series – Anthony Coburn and Morris Barry – had seemed more than willing to constantly feed this “Whore/Madonna” mentality regarding Demelza Poldark and Elizabeth Warleggan.

“This Is a Mistake”

“THIS IS A MISTAKE”

I have heard that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent protests against police brutality, Disney Parks have decided to change the theme of its Splash Mountain attraction in all of its theme parks. Instead of an attraction based on the 1949 animated film, “SONG OF THE SOUTH” and the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, Disney Parks has decided to change the attraction’s theme to one based on the 2009 animated film, “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG”. And I believe this is a big mistake.

First of all, why can Disney Parks not consider the idea of maintaining the present theme of Splash Mountain and create a new one based on “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG”? What is the point of erasing the “SONG OF THE SOUTH” theme from its Splash Mountain attraction? “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG” theme . . . with a mountain setting? That does not make any sense to me, considering the 2009 movie was set in late 1920s New Orleans and the swamps of Southern Louisiana. “SONG OF THE SOUTH” was set near the region of Stone Mountain, somewhere between Northern and Central Georgia.

If Disney thinks it is being politically correct in the wake of the Black Lives Matters movement, they are mistaken. The Brer Rabbit stories are basically AFRICAN-AMERICAN folklore,which served as a metaphor for the struggles of African-American slaves before and immediately after the Civil War. Three African-Americans on a Georgia plantation had told these stories to Joel Chandler Harris, a white teenager they had befriended during and after the Civil War. Harris had worked for their owner and later, employer. When he later became a journalist and a writer, Harris took those stories and had them published under the “Uncle Remus Tales” title between 1880 and 1907. The character of Uncle Remus served as a metaphor for those three slaves-turned-freedmen, whom Harris had befriended. What Disney Parks is doing is misguided lip service to the Black Lives Matter movement. If Disney Parks really want to pay tribute to the movement, it would maintain Splash Mountain’s original theme and create a new attraction based on “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG”.

Now that I think about it, what is really racist about “SONG OF THE SOUTH”? The Uncle Remus character? The fact that he is a former slave? Or that he was friendly with two white kids? Or that he still lived on a plantation after the Civil War? Uncle Remus was based on the three slaves that Joel Harris had befriended on a plantation. How else does anyone thinks Harris had found out about the Brer Rabbit stories? By eavesdropping on the plantation workers? Are people upset that Uncle Remus had served as a narrator, telling these stories to white kids? I also noticed two other aspects of this situation. The 1946 movie was set during the post-Civil War era. One of the film’s main protagonists, a young Georgian white boy named Johnny, who happened to be the son of an Atlanta newspaper journalist in post-Civil War Georgia. Aside from Uncle Remus, Johnny had befriended a poor white girl and the son of a black sharecropper during his family’s visit to his grandmother’s plantation. The movie has nothing to do with reinforcing the so-called “glories” of the pre-Civil War Old South. None of the live-action characters in “SONG OF THE SOUTH” – including Uncle Remus – or the film’s actual plantation setting is featured inside Splash Mountain. So again . . . why does Disney Parks feel it needs to change the attraction’s theme?

The Brer Rabbit stories are metaphors about how generations black Americans had SURVIVED the horrors of American slavery, after they and their ancestors had been dragged to North American and to different parts of the South and forced to work for nothing against their will. Do many people have a problem that comedy was an element in the stories? That is how the original stories were framed. At least “SONG OF THE SOUTH” is actually based on African-American culture or folklore. Despite having an African-American woman as its leading character, “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG” is not. It is a movie based on “The Frog Princess”, a 2002 novel written by E.D. Baker, a white American woman. She had based her novel on who based her story on “The Frog Prince”, the 1812 novel written by the Brothers Grimm . . . two white European men.

By replacing the “SONG OF THE SOUTH” theme inside Splash Mountain attraction at the Disney theme parks with one from “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG”, Disney Parks is erasing one theme based on African-American culture and replacing it with one based on European culture. Replacing “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG” lead character from a white European woman to an African-American woman does not change that fact.

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter III Commentary

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER III Commentary

Chapter II of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS” focused on the second leg of the western Virginia family’s westbound journey to California in 1844. This last episode focused on their journey through Illinois and Missouri, culminating in their arrival in Independence, Missouri. Chapter III focused on the family’s trek along the eastern half of the Oregon Trail, culminating with an unwanted encounter on the plains.

A great deal had happened to the Chisholm family in Chapter II. Their traveling companion, Lester Hackett, managed to seduce Hadley and Minerva Chisholm’s older daughter Bonnie Sue and later, steal Will Chisholm’s horse in an effort to evade a group of men who suspected him of stealing some items of their friend. Will and the family’s second son, Gideon broke away from the family outside St. Louis and headed for Lester’s family farm in Iowa. The pair was eventually arrested for trespassing on the Hackett farm and forced to spend one month on a prison work gang. The other members of the Chisholm family encountered a family from Baltimore, Maryland named Comyns and formed a wagon party with them. Following their arrival in Independence, the family discovered that most of the wagon trains had set out on the Oregon Trail over a month ago. The two families encountered a former Army scout named Timothy Oates, who asked if he and his Pawnee wife could accompany them as far as present-day Nebraska. Unaware that Will and Gideon had been detained in Iowa, the Chisholms and their traveling companions continued their western trek.

Despite being a month behind and two missing members of the family, the Chisholms’ western trek seemed to be going well. For once, Hadley has managed to contain his prejudice against Native Americans and regard Timothy’s Pawnee wife, Youngest Daughter, in an affable light. The youngest member of the Chisholm family, Annabel, has managed to click rather well with the Oates. However, it was not long before the travelers encountered their first barrier on the trail. After their first river crossing (possibly the Wakarusa River), they encounter a family named Hutchinson. When the family’s patriarch informed the travelers that he and his family were returning east due to a mysterious fever striking their wagon party, Mr. Comyns decided to do the same. The youngest member of his family happened to be an infant and he did not want to risk the child becoming sick. The Chisholm family continued their western trek in the company of Timothy and Youngest Daughter Oates. They first encountered the very wagon train that the Hutchinson family had abandoned. Unfortunately, members of that wagon train were still stricken by the fever. The traveling party then encountered two Kansa couples traveling on foot, with whom they traded coffee for butter. Timothy hid his wife inside the Chisholms’ wagon, due to the Pawnee and the Kansa being at war. Eventually, the Chisholms said good-bye to Timothy and Youngest Daughter, who continued on to the latter’s Pawnee village. And the Chisholms continued their California-bound trek.

Ten or fifteen minutes into the episode, Will and Gideon were finally released from the prison work gang after thirty days. The pair stumbled across a ramshackle cabin in Missouri, where they found dead bodies, a wrecked interior and a traumatized Native American woman who seemed to have been assaulted. Will managed to convince her to accompany them as far as Independence for medical attention. The Chisholm brothers finally discovered the tavern where Hadley and Beau had first met Timothy Oates. The bartender informed them that the other Chisholms had already continued west. The pair also learned that their traveling companion was named Keewedinok and she wanted to accompany the two brothers on their journey. Meanwhile, back on the trail, Beau managed to shoot a buffalo, allowing the Chisholms to enjoy a meal with bison meat for the first time. Unbeknownst to them, a Pawnee warrior had spotted them and raced back to his companions to report their presence. The Pawnees hold a campfire before deciding to raid the Chisholm camp for the family’s mules and the women. The episode ended with Bonnie Sue becoming the first family member targeted by the Pawnee raiders.

I felt as if I experiencing an oncoming train wreck, while watching Chapter III. This is no negative reflection on the miniseries’ writing. The train wreck I was referring to were the series of decisions and bad luck that led to the episode’s last moment – the Pawnee raiders’ attack upon the Chisholms. To be honest, this series of bad luck and questionable decisions began when the family discovered they had set out for California a month late in Chapter I and continued in Chapter II. But the series of small disasters that the Chisholms experienced in Chapter III seemed to form a crescendo, until it ended with a pay off that culminated in a disaster.

Although the previous two episodes featured decisions made by Hadley Chisholm that led to that disastrous moment in the final scene of Chapter III, screenwriter David Dortort did a great job in building up to that moment with a series of memorable scenes. For me, the one most dramatic scenes included the Chisholms’ encounter with the fever-infected wagon train. This led to Hadley and Minerva’s last quarrel over whether they should continue west to California or turn back. I also enjoyed the Chisholms and the Oates’ encounter with the two Kansa couples. It featured an interesting mixture of comedy surrounding the Chisholms’ efforts to trade with the two couples; and dramatic tension over Timothy’s effort to Younger Daughter from the Kansa, due to a war between the two tribes.

Viewers got a chance to experience the beginning of Will and Gideon’s adventures on the road as they struggle to catch up with their family, following their release from the prison work gang. The miniseries never really indicated on whether they had met the widowed Keewedinok in Iowa or Missouri. But I cannot deny that Dortort did a great job in detailing the brothers’ budding relationship with her. I especially enjoyed how the pair, especially Will, went out of his way reassure Keewedinok that he and Gideon will not harm her with a soothing manner. Another interesting aspect about this scene was the brothers’ discussion on who was behind the attack on the cabin. When Will speculated on the idea of hostile Native Americans in that part of the world (Iowa or Missouri, circa 1844), Gideon responded with an even more interesting suggestion that whites may have been behind the attack that left a traumatized Keewedinok as the sole survivor. Although Will managed to convince Keewedinok to accompany him and Gideon, she barely spoke a word during their journey. She finally spoke up at an Independence saloon, where she revealed her name and asked Will if she could accompany the brothers further west.

One of the most interesting scenes in both this episode and the entire miniseries proved to be the conference between the four (or three) Pawnee braves who had targeted the Chisholms for a raid. Frankly, it happened to be one of the funniest scenes in the series as the Pawnees debated over the Chisholms’ valuable belongings. They also debated over who would lead the prayer for a successful raid. One particular brave seemed to be rather annoyed when the youngest Pawnee kept erroneously praying for horses, when it had already been established that the Virginia family only had mules. It seems odd to think that this rather humorous scene occurred right before they made their first strike at the end of the episode.

As usual, the performances featured in this episode of “THE CHISHOLMS” were top-notch. Solid performances from the likes of Stacy Nelkin, James Van Patten and Susan Swift, who portrayed the younger members of the Chisholm family. The episode also featured solid performances from the likes of Silvana Gallardo (whom I remembered from NBC’s “CENTENNIAL”), Tenaya Torres, Joe “Running Fox” Garcia, Ronald G. Joseph, Don Shanks and Jerry Hardin. I rather enjoyed Geno Silva’s entertaining performance as an Osage man named Ferocious Storm, who proved to be quite a canny trader when the Chisholms and the Oates made their river crossing. Another performance that caught my eye came from none other than Billy Drago, who portrayed Teetonkah, the leader of the four Pawnee raiders. Eight years before his appearance in the 1987 movie, “THE UNTOUCHABLES”, Drago made it clear in this production that he would become a screen presence that many would not forget. David Hayward proved to be both solid and charismatic as the dependable former Army scout, Timothy Oates. Hayward did a great job in conveying Timothy’s competence as a guide . . . to the point that his departure from the story was clearly felt when the character and the latter’s wife parted from the Chisholms on the Nebraska plains.

Both Ben Murphy and Brian Kerwin finally got the chance to develop a solid screen chemistry when their two characters – brothers Will and Gideon Chisholm – were released from the prison work gang. I especially enjoyed their performances in one scene that featured Will and Gideon’s discovery of the traumatized Keewedinok and their speculation on whether Native Americans or whites were responsible for assaulting her and killing the ransacked cabin’s other inhabitants. Speaking of Keewedinok, I thought Sandra Griego gave an excellent portrayal of a woman dealing with the trauma of being assaulted. Griego managed to perfectly convey Keewedinok’s state of mind without any acting histronics. She also formed a very good chemistry with Murphy. As for the miniseries’ two leads – Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris – they were outstanding as usual. However, there were two scenes featuring the veterans in which I thought they truly shined. The first was a small scene that featured Hadley and Minerva enjoy a brief private conversation together (which included Minerva’s astonishment at the different languages spoken by various Plains tribes) that led to more intimate nocturnal activities. Both Preston and Harris were at their most charming in this scene. I also enjoyed their acting in another scene that featured a brief quarrel between the couple over whether to continue west or not, following the family’s encounter with the fever-induced wagon train.

I did have a few quibbles regarding Chapter III. One, the passage of time struck me as rather vague. In fact, the passage of time for this production has been vague since the last half hour of Chapter I. The miniseries revealed that the Chisholms had arrived in Louisville, Kentucky in mid-May 1844. As of the end of Chapter III, I have no idea how much time had passed since their departure from Louisville. All I know is that Will and Gideon are probably a little over a month behind the rest of the family, thanks to their month long sentence on an Iowa prison work gang. I also had two problems regarding the episode’s photography. For some reason, cinematographer Jacques R. Marquette thought it was necessary to film this episode in earth tones, due to the Chisholms traveling west of Independence. I found this unnecessary, considering that the landscape in eastern Kansas and Nebraska is green and the Chisholms had yet to travel that far west. Also, unlike the production’s first two chapters, I noticed that this chapter’s photography not only did not seem that colorful, but also not that sharp. I get the feeling that whoever transferred this miniseries to DVD did not bother improve the visuals for this episode.

Quibbles or not, Chapter III of “THE CHISHOLMS” proved to be both entertaining and very interesting. The episode featured a major shift in the Chisholms’ western journey, the addition of new characters and dangers. Chapter III also featured some excellent performances, especially by the leads Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris and Ben Murphy and a series of interesting scenes that led to the episode’s cliffhanger.

Favorite Pre-Gilded Age American History Books

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Below is a list of my favorite books that covered the history of the United States from the late British Colonial period to the end of the U.S. Civil War:

FAVORITE PRE-GILDED AGE AMERICAN HISTORY BOOKS

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1. “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” (2014) by Edward E. Baptist – This book centers on how slavery and the cotton industry helped develop the rise of U.S. capitalism.

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2. “1861: The Civil War Awakening” (2011) by Adam Goodheart – This book depicts the last months of the United States’ Antebellum period and the first months of the U.S. Civil War.

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3. “1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See” (2008) by Bruce Chadwick – The book focuses on the historical events in the United States during the year, 1858.

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4. “Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” (1997) by Annette Gordon-Reed – This book won the Pulitzer Prize for its in-depth exploration of President Thomas Jefferson and one of slaves, Sally Hemings.

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5. “The Town That Started the Civil War” (1990) by Nat Brandt – This book is an in-depth study of Oberlin, Ohio during the 19th century and its role in one of the most famous slave rescues in U.S. history.

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6. “Slavery and the Making of America” (2004) by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton – This book is a detailed account of the history of slavery in the U.S. from the Colonial period to the end of the Civil War.

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7. “The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience” (1981) by J.S. Holliday – This book is an in-depth study of the California Gold Rush between 1848 and 1855.

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8. “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War” (2018) by Andrew Delbanco – This book focuses on slavery and especially the abolition movement from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War.

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9. “John Adams” (2001) by David McCullough – This book is a biography of President John Adams and won a Pulitzer Prize.

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10. “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad” (2015) by Eric Foner – This book is a detailed account on the history of the Underground Railroad and the abolition movement in New York City.

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11. “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin – This biography is about the life of President Abraham Lincoln and the more prominent members of his Cabinet before and during the Civil War. It won both the Lincoln Prize and the inaugural Book Prize for American History of the New-York Historical Society.

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12. “A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North” (1976) by John Hope Franklin – This book is an account of the experiences of Southern travelers in the Northern states during the years before the Civil War.

“HARRIET” (2019) Review

“HARRIET” (2019) Review

Many people are familiar with Harriet Tubman, the former slave-turned-Underground Railroad conductor-turned-Civil War operative-turned-political activist. She has appeared as a supporting character in a handful of television productions and the leading character in two other television productions. However, a full-length feature film has finally been made about the famous historical figure. That film is called “HARRIET”.

As I had earlier stated, there have been two television productions about the famous Underground Railroad conductor. One of them was an episode from the 1963-1964 historical anthology series “THE GREAT ADVENTURE” called (1.06) “Go Down, Moses”. It starred Ruby Dee. The other television production was the 1978 miniseries “A WOMAN CALLED MOSES”, which starred Cicely Tyson. Following the latter, the Harriet Tubman figure appeared in a few television productions about slavery and the Underground Railroad until the release of this new film.

“HARRIET” basically covered Tubman’s life during a nine-year period between 1849 and 1850, along with a sequence set in 1858. The movie began in 1849 Maryland with Harriet (or Araminta “Minty” Ross Tubman, as she was known then), along with her husband John Tubman and father Ben Ross (both who were free) approached Harriet’s owner Edward Bodress with a promise made by the latter’s ancestor that her mother Harriet “Rit” Ross would be freed by the age of 45, along with their children (including Harriet). Bodress refused to acknowledge the promise. He also forbade Harriet from seeing her husband John. Brodess’s adult son Gideon caught Minty praying for God to take Mr. Brodess. The latter died shortly afterward. Alarmed by this, Gideon decided to sell Minty as punishment. Suffering from spells that began after she had been struck in the head as a child, Minty had a vision of her being free and decided to run away. She convinced John to remain behind, in case he got caught and punished for escaping with her. Minty eventually reached Philadelphia and freedom. She managed to acquire a job, thanks to the assistance of Underground Railroad abolitionist/writer William Still and a fashionable free black woman named Marie Buchanon. After a few months in Philadelphia, Minty (who renamed herself as Harriet Tubman) returned to Maryland to retrieve John and discovered that he had remarried, believing she was dead. Instead, Harriet decided to escort some family members north to freedom and began her career as a conductor for the Underground Railroad.

I have been aware of Harriet Tubman ever since I was a child of nine years old. My mother had purchased a copy of Marcy Heidish’s 1976 novel called “A Woman Called Moses”, the basis for the 1978 miniseries. But “HARRIET” marked the first time that Tubman was featured as the a character in a motion picture, let alone the leading character. So naturally, I had to see it. I had some problems with the movie. One, I could easily see that it was not historical accurate. This is not a real problem for me. After seeing two television productions that erroneously featured Harriet Tubman operating in the Ohio River Valley, the historical inaccuracies in this film struck me as a piece of cake.

One example would be the scene during her own escape in which her new owner, Gideon Bodress, and a slave patrol cornered her on a bridge. Instead of surrendering, she evaded them by jumping into the river. Needless to say, no such thing happened, since her owner (Anthony Thompson), or any slave patrol were able to capture her during her journey to Philadelphia. But . . . I was able to tolerate this scene. Somewhat. I was also a bit confused about her relationship with John Tubman in this film. Director-writer Kasi Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard portrayed Harriet or Minty’s marriage as loving and trouble free. This has not been the case in another Hollywood production I could think of. Unfortunately, no one really knows whether the Tubmans had experienced any marital strife before her flight from Maryland. So . . . I tolerated this portrayal. However, the movie indicated that Minty had suggested John not run with her so that he would not be caught aiding a runaway. This is false. According to history, John did not want her to run in the first place. They also made it clear that John had remarried because he had assumed Minty/Harriet was dead. I do not know whether this is true or not. But it seemed as if Lemmons and Howard seemed hell bent upon portraying John in a positive light as much as possible.

But there were changes in the narrative that left me scratching my head. “HARRIET” featured Minty making her escape from Maryland in the middle of the day . . . which I found odd. The movie had her working in a garden when someone warned her that Bodress had plans to sell her to the Deep South in order to alleviate family debts. No sooner had she received the warning, one of the plantation’s foremen appeared to grab her. Minty ran and . . . hid. She hid around the plantation for hours before she contacted her family and left. What made this even more odd is that Bodress did not learn of her escape from the foreman until hours later. Which I found very odd. Historically, most slave escapes began in the middle of the night, not in the middle of the day. Why did Minty wait so long to contact her family before her escape? And why did the plantation foreman wait so long to inform Bodress? Also, she made most of her journey by night and hid during the daytime. Which would have made that daytime encounter on the bridge with Bodress somewhat implausible. I can only assume Lemmons and Howard had added it for dramatic reasons.

In the movie, Minty/Harriet did not wait very long to return to Maryland and contact her family and John. After escorting several members of her family north, she returned to Maryland and helped others escape on several occasions before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Now this is ridiculous. One, Tubman returned to Maryland to help some relatives escape at least three to four months after the law’s passage. I find it very hard to believe that she had made so many trips to Maryland between her own escape in September 1849 and when the fugitive law was passed in September 1850. Another troubling aspect of the movie was the sequence featuring the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. The movie featured a scene with former slaves – including Harriet – leaving en masse from the Philadelphia docks, while God knows how many slave catchers suddenly appeared to capture these fugitives. What the hell? I had felt as if I was watching a war movie with refugees escaping from an invaded city. Yes, many fugitive slaves were forced to flee the Northern states for Canada following the law’s passage. But not like THAT. Not like a scene from “CASABLANCA” or “THE WINDS OF WAR”.

I have two more complaints. Why did Lemmons and Howard added that . . . relationship between Harriet and Bodress? Why? It was bad enough that Gideon Bodress never existed. But Tubman had never recounted having to deal with the unwanted sexual interest or assault from any white man. And I got the impression that Lemmons wanted to include some watered down version of the Patsey-Edwin Epps relationship from the Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” – but without the overt violence and sex. It was obvious that Bodress had never laid a violent hand on Harriet in the film, aside from the slap on the face after he had overheard her wish for his father’s death. But I find it implausible that Gideon Bodress had never attempted to sexually assault her. Even when his father was alive. Another sequence featured Northern black and white members discussing the Fugitive Slave Act passage and whether it would be safe to continue the Underground Railroad. What I disliked about this sequence is that most of them seemed to have this attitude without the organization’s conductors appearing on Southern plantations to lead them, many slaves would not be willing to escape or would not succeed in escaping. And this was far from the truth. One could argue that this scene was a perfect example of patronization from Northern abolitionists. But Harriet did not point out that slaves were capable of escaping on their own. Instead, she simply argued for the continuation of the Underground Railroad. Which simply made her equally patronizing to me.

One would think that I disliked “HARRIET”. That person would be wrong. I actually enjoyed it very much. Despite some of the narrative choices, lightweight characterizations and historical inaccuracies; “HARRIET” was both an entertaining and interesting film. One, it is nice to see Hollywood produce a feature film about the former abolitionist. “HARRIET” is a thoughtful drama about a period in United States history about which very few Americans want to discuss, let alone contemplate. Like other Hollywood productions, the movie mainly featured Tubman’s early career as an Underground Railroad conductor. I had assumed that it would also focus on her Civil War experiences, due to some publicity stills released before the film hit the theaters. But the movie only included a coda, featuring Tubman’s participation in a raid during the war. “HARRIET” was, without a doubt, about her role with the Underground Railroady.

Due to the film’s focus on Harriet’s career as an Underground Railroad conductor, it did not focus that strongly on her family life . . . with the exceptions of her attempts to lead them to freedom. Many critics have complained about this. But I can understand why Lemmons only focused on one aspect of Harriet’s life. This was a feature-length film that ran nearly two hours, not a television miniseries. Frankly, I thought it was smart of her to focus one one aspect of Harriet’s life, considering the format she had used. And she focused on one of the former slave/abolitionist’s most famous period in her life – namely that as an Underground Railroad conductor. Only through this story arc was the movie able to somewhat focus on her connection to her family. In fact, one the most interesting arcs in this narrative proved to be a sequence that featured Tubman’s attempts to rescue her sister Rachel and the latter’s children.

This focus on Harriet’s career with the Underground Railroad allowed Lemmons and Howard to reveal Harriet as action heroine she truly was. The writers’ narrative arc also featured some well staged action sequences. Among my favorite sequences are Harriet’s initial escape from Maryland and her successful rescue of Rachel’s children in the film’s second half. Both struck me as well-shot sequences that featured a great deal of more tension and drama than action. And I thought the focus on these two aspects may have allowed the sequences to be more effective without the obvious action. I also enjoyed the movie’s final action sequence in which Harriet attempted to rescue and lead her parents to freedom in the late 1850s. Not only was this sequence filled with the usual solid action for this trope, it featured a tense-filled final confrontation between Harriet and Bodress.

I certainly did not have a problem with the film’s production values. I thought Warren Alan Young did an exceptional job in re-creating antebellum America, especially in scenes that featured the Bodress plantation, Baltimore (at least I think it is), Canada and especially Philadelphia. I believe Young was ably supported by John Troll’s sharp and colorful cinematography, Wyatt Smith’s film editing, Kevin Hardison and Christina Eunji Kim’s art direction, and Marthe Pineau’s set decorations. I also have to commend Paul Tazewell for his costume designs. I thought Tazewell did an excellent job of conveying the movie’s setting and characters through his costumes, as shown in the images below:

I have a confession to make. Aside from a handful, I was not exactly blown away by the performances featured in “HARRIET”. I am not claiming that most of the performances were terrible or even mediocre. I simply found them solid . . . or serviceable. There were a few that I found slightly above being serviceable – like Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Zackary Momoh, Tim Guinee, Henry Hunter Hall, Joseph Lee Anderson, Jennifer Nettles and Omar J. Dorsey. But like I had said, there were a few that struck me as memorable. One of them Clarke Peters, who gave a subtle, yet warm portrayal of Harriet/Minty’s father, Ben Ross. I was also impressed by Vanessa Bell Calloway, who gave an exceptional performance as the abolitionist’s emotional and slightly edgy mother, Harriet Ritt Ross. Joe Alwyn did an excellent job of portraying Gideon Bodress as a slightly complex character without transforming the character into a one-note, moustache-twirling villain. And I really enjoyed Vondie Curtis-Hall’s subtle, yet colorful portrayal of Reverend Green, the local free black minister, who also happened to be a member of the Underground Railroad.

But the performance that really counted in “HARRIET” came from leading lady Cynthia Erivo. It is almost a miracle that Erivo managed to give such an exceptional performance as Harriet Tubman. I say this, because Lemmons and Howard had failed to fully portray Tubman as a complex human being with not only virtues, but also a few flaws. Their Tubman almost struck me as a borderline Mary Sue, due to their determination to basically portray her as an action heroine. But they did provide some intimate moments between Tubman, her family and friends. And this gave Erivo the opportunity to skillfully convey the warm, yet strong-willed individual underneath the heroic facade. This was especially apparent in scenes that featured Tubman’s desperation to put as much distance between her and the Bodress plantation as possible; her determination to return to Maryland to rescue her family; and her discovery that her husband had married another woman. Thanks to her superb performance, Erivo managed to earn both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. And if I must be brutally honest, she deserved them.

Overall, I enjoyed “HARRIET”. I have always been interested in Harriet Tubman as a historical figure and was happy to see a motion picture about her. It was not the best or most compelling biopic I have ever seen. Nor was it the best biopic about Tubman I have ever seen. But I cannot deny that thanks to Kari Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard’s interesting screenplay, Lemmons’ solid direction and a first-rate cast led by Cynthia Erivo, “HARRIET” is a movie that I will be more than happy to watch on many occasions in the future.

 

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“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1982) Book Review

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“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1982) Book Review

During the first twenty years or so following his graduation from college, John Jakes spent that period writing many short stories and novels that featured science fiction, fantasy, westerns and the occasional historical fiction. Then he achieved literary success in the 1970s with the publication of The Kent Family Chronicles, a series of eight novels about a family between 1770 and 1890. Three years after the publication of that series’ last novel, Jakes embarked upon another literary series called the North and South Trilogy.

The North and South Trilogy was a literary series that depicted the lives of two wealthy families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the years before, during and immediately after the U.S. Civil War. The first novel, 1982’s “NORTH AND SOUTH”, began with the establishment of the two families when their founders immigrated to the New World in the late 17th century. The novel jumped a century-and-a-half later when George Hazard, son of a wealthy Pennsylvania iron industrialist; and Orry Main, the son of a South Carolina rice planter, Orry Main; met as cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1842. The pair immediately become fast friends as they endure the brutal hazing of an older sadistic cadet from Ohio named Elkhannah Bent, and action during the Mexican-American War. The friendship between the two young men eventually form a connection between their respective families as they become acquainted with each other during family trips to the Newport summer resorts and Mont Royal, the Mains’ rice plantation in the South Carolina low country. The two families consist of:

The Hazards
*George Hazard – one of the main protagonists, who is like his father, an iron industrialist
*Constance Flynn Hazard – George’s Irish-born wife and an abolitionist
*Stanley Hazard – George’s older brother, an incompetent businessman who left the iron trade to become involved in politics
*Isobel Truscott Hazard – Stanley’s shrewish and social-climbing wife
*Virgilia Hazard – George’s only sister and die-hard abolitionist
*Billy Hazard – George’s younger brother
*Maude Hazard – the Hazard family’s matriarch
*William Hazard – the Hazard family’s patriarch and iron industrialist

The Mains
*Orry Main – one of the protagonists, who becomes a rice planter like his father
*Cooper Main – Orry’s older brother and owner of a shipping company who harbors moderate abolitionist views
*Ashton Main – Orry’s younger sister and die-hard secessionist
*Charles Main – Orry’s young cousin, who is saved from a future as a wastrel by Orry
*Judith Stafford Main – Cooper’s wife, who also happens to be a more hardcore abolitionist than her husband
*James Huntoon – Ashton’s future husband, who is also a secessionist and attorney
*Clarissa Brett Main – the Main family’s matriarch
*Tillet Main – the Main family’s patriarch and rice planter

Two other major characters featured in “NORTH AND SOUTH”:

*Elkhannah Bent – The Ohio-born sadist who becomes an enemy of George and Orry during their years at West Point; and both Charles’ enemy and Army commander on the Texas frontier
*Grady – James Huntoon’s slave, who later escaped and became Virgilia Hazard’s common-law husband

Both the Hazards and the Mains find love, marriage or both throughout the novel. George meets and marries Constance Flynn, the daughter of an Irish immigrant attorney. Orry falls in love at first sight with Madeline Fabray, the daughter of a New Orleans sugar factor. Unfortunately for Orry . . . and Madeline, they meet and fall in love as she is preparing to marry the Mains’ neighbor, the brutal and venal Justin LaMotte. George’s younger brother, William (Billy) Hazard II falls in love . . . first with Orry’s sister Ashton Main and later, with the youngest Main sibling, Brett. And George’s older sister Virgilia, an ardent abolitionist, meets and fall in love with Grady, who turned out to be the slave of James Huntoon, Ashton’s future husband.

More importantly, “NORTH AND SOUTH” depicted those last nineteen years of American history before the outbreak of the Civil War. Through the eyes of George, Orry and their families; John Jakes conveyed readers through life at the Military Academy at West Point – first through George and Orry’s eyes during the 1840s and later, through Billy and Charles’ eyes during the 1850s. Although John Jakes portrayed George and Orry’s West Point experiences with more detail, the author’s portrayal of the Military Academy during the following decade proved to be more interesting, as he conveyed how Billy Hazard and Charles Main struggled to maintain their own friendship amidst the growing sectional conflict that threatened to overwhelm the Academy and the nation.

What I found even more interesting is that the novel began during the 1840s – a decade in which the abolitionist movement began to become increasingly popular in many parts of North. Another significant event had also occurred during this decade – namely the Mexican-American War. Because of the war, George met his future wife, Constance Flynn, during a stop at Corpus Cristi, Texas; on the way to the battlefields in Mexico. The war also featured a backdrop for George and Orry’s last dangerous encounter with Elkhannah Bent in the novel – during the Battle of Churabusco. The most important aspect of the Mexican-American War is that it left the United States with more Western territory to settle – including California. Although both the North and the South had been in conflict over the slavery issue for several decades, the addition of the new Western lands, along with the rise of the Republican Party in the following decade, heightened the conflict between the two regions. In fact, the conflict over whether or not slavery would be practiced in the new Western territories helped lead to the creation of the Republican Party and eventually, the election of Abraham Lincoln as the country’s 16th president.

For some reason, many of today’s readers seem very critical of long and thick novels. They are even more critical of a historical novel filled with a great deal of melodrama. As I have stated in my review of Jakes’ 1984 novel, “LOVE AND WAR”, I simply do not understand this criticism. “NORTH AND SOUTH” is a novel . . . a work of fiction. It is not a history book. Fans either complained over the presence of melodrama in Jakes’ story or they complained over the abundance of historical facts that served as the novel’s backstory. Like I said . . . I do not understand this mentality. Even if many literary critics have been unwilling to admit this, a great deal of melodrama have been featured in the novels of literary giants. And novelists like John Jakes have proven that one can create a first-rate novel with a solid balance of both melodrama and history.

Since “NORTH AND SOUTH” told the story of two families during the last two decades leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, it only seemed natural that the topic of slavery would dominate its narrative. I can recall a YOUTUBE vlogger complaining that Jakes seemed a bit too “in the middle of the road” about slavery. This only seemed natural, considering the story’s two main characters came from different parts of the country. Following their stints in the Army, George took over the management of his family’s Pennsylvania steel manufacturing company and Orry took control of his family’s rice plantation in South Carolina that included slaves. It was only natural that the novel’s narrative would be about two men and their families trying to main their close friendship during the conflict over slavery.

Being slave owners, it only seemed natural that the Mains would see nothing wrong with slavery. Only three members of the family felt differently. Orry’s older brother Cooper viewed slavery as a moral wrong and refused to own slaves himself when he assumed control of a shipping line acquired from a man who had borrowed money from his father. However, Cooper seemed more concerned with how emancipation would impact his family and state’s economic situation than with the freedom of enslaved African-Americans. This would explain why he supported gradual emancipation. Charles Main, Orry and Cooper’s younger cousin, also felt that slavery was wrong. But he was too young to understand that slavery could end and merely tolerated the institution . . . until he became a cadet at West Point. And Cooper’s wife, Judith Stafford, a former teacher who had been schooled in New England, believed in the absolute abolition of slavery and civil rights for non-whites. Yet, she rarely expressed her views to others than her husband. Despite being Northerners, the Hazard family did not begin the saga as abolitionists – with three exceptions. George never gave slavery a thought until his first visit to the Mains’ plantation, Mont Royal, following his and Orry’s graduation from West Point in 1846. This visit led him to become an abolitionist, his politics remained moderate like Cooper Main’s. Neither older brother Stanley, younger brother Billy, sister-in-law Isobel Truscott or his mother Maude seemed interested in abolitionism. This was not surprising since the Hazards struck me as a moderately conservative family. Only George’s wife Constance and his sister Virgilia were fervent abolitionists. Virgilia’s abolitionism was viewed as “fanatical” due to her unwillingness to hide her hatred of slavery and slave owners beneath a veneer of politeness.

I noticed that in the novel’s second half, political moderates like George, Orry and Cooper seemed willing to blame political hardliners like Virgilia and rigid pro-slavery like Ashton Main and her husband, James Huntoon for the eventual outbreak of the Civil War. I could understand their aversion toward the country being driven toward war. And I realized they believed that compromise (namely the sacrifice of any future freedom for the slaves) could have prevented the outbreak of war. But unlike that YOUTUBE vlogger, I realized that Jakes was simply conveying the mindset of characters like George and Orry to his readers. If he truly believed George, Orry and Cooper’s moderate mindset regarding politics and slavery, why bother creating characters like Judith Main or Constance Hazard?

Another complaint that YOUTUBE blogger had brought up was Jakes’ lack of any slave characters. I believe her complaint was at best, minimal. Unlike the two novels that “NORTH AND SOUTH”, 1984’s “LOVE AND WAR” and 1987’s “HEAVEN AND HELL”, I must admit that the 1982 novel featured very little in-depth characterizations of either slaves or Northern blacks. There were occasional black characters that received brief viewpoints. But “NORTH AND SOUTH” only portrayed one non-white character with any real depth – namely Grady, James Huntoon’s slave, who eventually became a fugitive and later, Virgilia Hazard’s lover and common-law husband. For a novel in which the topic of slavery dominated the narrative, I found this rather odd and lacking.

I must also admit I do have some issues with Jakes’ portrayals of his villains. Although I believe he did an excellent of delving into psyches, many of them were in danger of being portrayed as one-note personalities. And his worst villains seemed to be wrapped in a great deal of sexual perversion, violence or both. This especially seemed to be the case for characters like Elkhanah Bent, Ashton Main Huntoon, Justin LaMotte and the latter’s nephew Forbes LaMotte. Bent is portrayed as a man with a sexual preference for anyone who happened to attract his attention – whether that person is a man, woman or child. Ashton is portrayed as a promiscuous female since the age of 14 . . . or younger. In fact, one sequence featured a visit made to West Point by her, Orry and their younger sister Brett in which Ashton ended up having sex with a handful of Northern-born cadets. Frankly, I thought Jakes had went too far in this sequence and he seemed to portray Ashton’s highly sexual nature as something ugly and perverse. He also did the same for Virgilia Hazard, whose emotions regarding abolition and black men in general seemed to ring with excessive sexuality. On the other end of the scale; Jakes portrayed other villainous characters like George’s sister-in-law, Isobel, as sexually frigid; and Orry’s brother-in-law James Huntoon as sexually inadequate.

By the way, why did he portray Virgilia Hazard as a borderline villain? Many fans of his saga viewed her as a villain due to a general dislike of Southerners. Yet, the novel made it clear that Virgilia also harbored a strong dislike to those Northerners who opposed slavery, regardless if they were fellow citizens of Lehigh Station or members of her own family. I have to be honest. I still find it difficult to view Virgilia as a villain. As a character, she was on the right side of history – not only in her support of abolition and civil rights for non-white, but also in her embrace of interracial relationships. I found it difficult to condemn her for her beliefs.

One could condemn Virgilia for her willingness to embrace violence to end slavery. But honestly, this willingness only exposed the other characters’ hypocrisy. In other words, many Americans like the other Hazards and the Mains continued to celebrate the country’s use of violence to win independence from Great Britain during the late 18th century. Yet, they condemned Virgilia and other abolitionists like her for supporting the use of violence to end slavery. Even to this day, there are historians who continue to express this wish or desire that slavery had never ended via a four-year war, yet see nothing wrong in celebrating the violence of the American Revolution. I do not know if Jakes had intended this, but in another sequence in the novel, Virgilia had confronted Orry and Brett Main during the pair’s visit to Lehigh Station in 1859. During a quarrel between her and Orry, Virgilia pointed out that it was only natural for those who participated in evil would deny it. And she was right. No matter how decent most members of the Main family were, they participated in evil – namely slavery – for their benefit. And they saw nothing wrong with this. Northern businessmen like George also profited from their business connections to the South. In the novel, George had agreed to help finance Cooper Main’s new vessel that would ship slave-produced cotton to Europe. No matter how “fanatical”, violent or confrontational people like Virgilia were . . . they were right about the country’s ties to slavery.

Although I love the novel overall, there were segments that I really enjoyed. Among them were George’s first visit to Mont Royal, Constance’s early clashes with sister-in-law Isobel, the Hazard and Main families’ first summer vacation at Newport, the Hazards’ 1851 visit to Mont Royal, the Mains’ visit to West Point, Ashton and Forbes’ attempt to murder Billy following his wedding to Brett, and the whole Harper’s Ferry segment beginning with Orry and Brett’s visit to Lehigh Station and ending with their experiences during the Harper’s Ferry raid. But if I had to choose the segments that I truly enjoyed, they were – the train crash that the Hazard family experienced on their way to Newport; Charles’ conflict with Elkhanah Bent in Texas during the late 1850s; and especially Billy’s experiences during the crisis at both Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter.

I will admit that “NORTH AND SOUTH” has its flaws – especially the one-dimensional portrayals of its villains and a minimum of African-American characters in a story dominated by the topic of slavery. But after so many years, I still love the novel. I think it is one of the best literary depictions of life in the United States during the last two decades before the Civil War. And to that YOUTUBE vlogger who believed that Jakes’ view on slavery may seemed a bit too conservative and suspect, I should point out that he ended the novel with a partial quote from Virginia-born Founding Father George Mason, who condemned the entire country for its participation in slavery . . . and expressed a prophecy that it will pay the consequences for that participation. Which it did.

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter II Commentary

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER II Commentary

The first episode of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS” – otherwise known as Chapter I had focused on the Chisholm family’s last year at their western Virginia farm. The episode also explored the circumstances that led to patriarch Hadley Chisholm’s decision to move the family west to California during the spring of 1844 and their journey as far as Evansville, Indiana. This second episode focused on the next stage of their journey.

This new episode or Chapter II focused on a short period of the Chisholms’ migration to California. It covered their journey from southeastern Illinois to Independence, Missouri. Due to the addition of a guide named Lester Hackett, who had agreed to accompany them as far as Missouri, the Chisholm family experienced its first crisis – one that led to a temporary split within the family ranks. The family’s journey seemed to be smooth sailing at first. They managed to become used to the routine of wagon train traveling. Lester proved to be an agreeable companion who helped with both hunting for game and cooking. He even managed to save Bonnie Sue Chisholm, who briefly found herself trapped in the family’s wagon being pulled away by their pair of skittish mules. Eventually, Bonnie Sue and Lester began expressing romantic interest in each other.

But alas, the family’s luck began to fade. A lone rider began trailing the Chisholm party. Lester discovered that he was a friend of someone named James Peabody, who believes Lester was responsible for the theft of some valuables that include a pair of Spanish pistols . . . the same pistols that Lester had claimed he lost in a poker match in Louisville. He and Bonnie Sue enjoyed a night of intimacy together before he abandoned the Chisholms . . . while riding Will Chisholm’s horse. Around the same time, Hadley’s violent encounter with a drunken Native American at a local tavern fully revealed his deep-seated bigotry towards all Native Americans and foreshadowed the problems it will cause. Then Hadley made one of the worst decisions of his life by allowing Will and middle son Gideon to pursue Lester to Iowa and recover the former’s stolen horse.

Upon their arrival in Iowa, Will made an equally disastrous decision. Instead of requesting information and help from the local sheriff, he and Gideon appeared at the Hackett farm, asking for Lester’s whereabouts. The two brothers ended up being arrested for the theft of chicken eggs and trespassing. Although the charges of theft were dropped, Will and Gideon were convicted of trespassing and ordered to serve on a prison work gang for a month. This left the rest of the family to continue on to Independence, Missouri – the jump-off point for all westbound wagon trains. During their journey through Missouri, the Chisholms joined with the Comyns, a family from Baltimore. Upon their arrival in Independence, the Chisholms and the Comyns discover that most of the wagons trains had already departed. However, they managed to form a wagon party with a plainsman named Timothy Oates and his Pawnee wife, Youngest Daughter. Unaware that Will and Gideon have been sentenced to a prison work gang, and aware that they are already behind schedule, the Chisholms have no choice but to head west into the wilderness.

For an episode that began in a light-hearted manner, Chapter II ended on a rather ominous note. You know, I have seen this production so many times. Yet, it never really occurred until recently how the turmoil caused by Lester Hackett in this episode, ended up causing so much turmoil for the family. What makes this ironic is that it all began with the sexual attraction that had sprung up between him and Bonnie Sue Chisholm back in Louisville. The first sign of this turmoil manifested in Lester’s abandonment of the family and especially, his theft of Will Chisholm’s horse. The horse theft led to the separation of the family at a time when it would have been more imperative for them to be together as a unit.

Hadley did not help matters by allowing Will and Gideon to search for Lester in Iowa. And the two brothers made the situation worse by failing to immediately contact the local sheriff before appearing at the Hackett farm – an act that led them to be sentenced one month on a prison work gang. Will and Gideon’s situation made it impossible for them to catch up with the rest of the family on the trail. And as Beau Chisholm had pointed out to Hadley in Independence, they were not in a position to wait for the other two. The Chisholms had no choice but to leave with two other westbound parties – the Comyns from Baltimore and the frontiersman Timothy Oates and his wife, Youngest Daughter. Two families and a couple does not seem large enough for a safe journey on the overland trail. But considering they were all behind schedule, they could either take the risk continue west or hang around Independence until the next year.

But I did notice that despite all of this turmoil, the light-hearted atmosphere of the episode’s beginning seemed to have persisted. More importantly, Chapter II seemed to be marked by a good deal of humor. The episode included humorous moments like Hadley’s negative comments about the Illinois and Missouri landscapes, Will and Lester’s lively debate over using mules or oxen to pull wagon overland, Lester’s attempts to win over the family – especially Minerva, and especially his sexy courtship of Bonnie Sue.

Once Lester had abandoned the family near St. Louis, the humor continued. Will and Gideon’s experiences in Iowa were marked with a good deal of sardonic humor. That same humor marked Hadley and Minerva’s low opinion of the Comyn family. Even Hadley’s quarrel with the Independence saloon owner permeated with humor and theatricality. Looking back on Chapter II, I can only think of two moments that really emphasized the gravitas of the Chisholms’ situation – Hadley’s violent encounter with the Native American inside an Illinois tavern and that final moment when the family continued west into the wilderness without Will and Gideon.

When the Chisholms left Virginia in Chapter I, their journey was marked with a good number of interesting settings. That episode featured a detailed re-creation of Louisville and travel along the Ohio River. There seemed to be no such unusual settings for Chapter II. The entire episode focused on the family’s journey through Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. Not once did the episode featured the family in St. Louis. And a few set pieces (or buildings) served as Independence, Missouri circa 1844.

The performances from Chapter I held up very well. Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, as usual, gave excellent performances as the family’s heads – Hadley and Minerva Chisholm. I was especially impressed by Preston’s performance in the scene involving Hadley’s encounter with the intoxicated Native American. In it, the actor did a superb job in conveying both Hadley’s racism toward all Native Americans and his poignant regret over the tragic circumstances (Allen Chisholm had been killed by a Native American in a drunken fight over a slave woman from the Bailey plantation) behind his toxic attitude. Both Ben Murphy and Brian Kerwin clicked rather well during those scenes that involved Will and Gideon Chisholm’s search for Lester. The episode also featured solid performances from James Van Patten, Susan Swift, Katie Hanley (as the amusingly mild-mannered Mrs. Comyn) and David Heyward (as Timothy Oates). Veteran character actor Jerry Hardin gave an excellent performance the slightly proud, yet finicky Mr. Comyn, who seemed to run his life by his pocketwatch.

But if I must be honest, this episode belonged to Stacy Nelkin and Charles Frank, who did superb jobs in conveying Bonnie Sue Chisholm and Lester Hackett’s burgeoning romance. I was impressed by how both of them developed Bonnie Sue and Lester’s relationship from sexual attraction to playful flirtations and finally, to a genuine romance that was sadly cut short by Lester’s need for self-preservation from a charge of theft.

Overall, I enjoyed Chapter II. In a way, it seemed to be the calm before the storm that threatens to overwhelm the Chisholm family on their trek to California. The episode seemed to be filled with a good deal of humor and romance. On the other hand, Lester Hackett’s past and current choices in this episode seemed to hint an ominous future for the family by the end of the episode.

 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy Locations

Below are images of locations used in the television adaptation of John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. The three miniseries aired between 1985 and 1994:

 

 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” TRILOGY LOCATIONS

Boone Hall Plantation; Mount Pleasant, South Carolina – This plantation had served as the exterior shots for the Main family’s South Carolina plantation, Mont Royal in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

 

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Stanton Hall; Natchez, Mississippi – This mansion was used for the interior shots of the Main family’s South Carolina plantation house, Mont Royal in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II” :

 

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Calhoun Mansion; Charleston, South Carolina – This manor house served as the Hazard family’s Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania mansion, Belvedere in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

 

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Greenwood Plantation; St. Francisville, Louisiana – This plantation had served as the South Carolina plantation, Resolute; which was owned by the Mains’ neighbor, Justin LaMotte in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

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Jefferson College; Washington, Mississippi – The rooms at this former all-male college had served as the barracks at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I”:

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Sunset Station; San Antonio, Texas – This historic train station had served as the rail terminal station in St. Louis, Missouri in “HEAVEN AND HELL – NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK III”: