The AHS faculty talk about books.

"Savannah" by John Jakes

Reviewed by: Eric Tomas

“That dirty old wreck? I don’t care who he is. I wouldn’t care if it was Sherman himself.”
“Well, you should, because it is.”

John Jakes has been one of my favorite novelists, ever since I opened the first few pages of North and South, his epic tale of two families on opposite ends of the American Civil War. Happily for me, most of his work is easily found in book sales, so I was able to complete my Jakes collection for a pretty low price.

My latest John Jakes read is Savannah, or A Gift for Mr. Lincoln. Set in the closing months of the Civil War, the story covers the taking of the city of Savannah by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who then offers the city to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas gift.

The story focuses mainly on Hattie Lester, a young Southern girl who inadvertently makes the acquaintance of General Sherman. Hattie, along with her mother Sara, is forced off her plantation due to the approach of Sherman and his army, and moves in with Sara’s friend Miss Vastly Rohrschamp. At Rohrschamp’s house, a group of Union soldiers attempts to loot the house, but they were stopped when an officer intervenes. This does nothing to assuage Hattie anger, however, so when she runs into a group of Union officers, Hattie, incensed at the depredations of the Union army, kicks a Union officer in the shin. The officer turns out to be Sherman himself, who is more amused than enraged at Hattie’s actions. It begins a complex friendship between the two.

Aside from the main story, as in many of Jakes’ novels, there are subplots to keep the reader adequately occupied. One underlying subplot is the awkward relationship between Alpheus Winks, an Indiana cavalryman and Zip, a young Negro slave whom Winks saves from drowning. As a result of the rescue, Zip considers himself beholden to Winks, much to Winks’ irritation. But, as the novel progresses, Winks finds himself reevaluating his view of the black man in general as he gets to know Zip better.

Another strength of Jakes’ books is his ability to create believable, fleshed-out characters, as well as well-described settings. He is rich in describing details about each character he introduces, even those who are destined to be seen only in a few pages, and it is easy to visualize Savannah and the Lester plantation.

What I also like about the novel, as well as Jakes’ books in general, is that it gives a fairly comprehensive look at American history, with vignettes not normally found in history lessons. While I was aware of the basic conflicts in the Civil War before I read his books, I was not aware of the complex issues that existed during that time.

For one thing, it’s clear that while the freeing of the slaves was one of the main reasons the war was fought, many Union soldiers fought mainly to preserve the Union, and more than a few were as bigoted as their Confederate enemies. Jakes emphasizes this through the characters’ words and actions.

Jakes’ afterword makes for interesting reading as well, as he explains the background for his story. He notes what events and characters are fictional, and what events actually happened. For the historical characters such as Sherman, he bases the character’s words and actions on his research; he notes, for example, that scholars generally believe that Sherman didn’t think that African-Americans would serve well as front-line Army troops. The afterword gives the reader an insight into how Jakes developed his story.

Unlike many of his books, Savannah isn’t as graphic with the violence and sex, which, while never gratuitously depicted, aren’t really appropriate for a younger audience. In the afterword, it is mentioned that Jakes meant the book to focus on Christmas, so I’m guessing that the toning down of the violence and sex is in line with this intent. However, the lack doesn’t take away anything from the book. Savannah is an entertaining, and even educational read, and I heartily recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn more about a tumultuous period of American history.


Sassy Brit said...

This sounds an interesting read. I haven't read many books on American History, and John Jakes appears to be a good author to start with.

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