We read Savanah for last month’s book club and decided to focus on John Jakes other stand alone book, Charleston, for this month. What a difference. While Savanah was a fun little book (if you can call anything about the brutality of the Civil War fun), Charleston was a completely different sort of novel. Beautifully written, full of action, pathos, and, at times, pandemonium.
It begins with the family’s “founding father” in 1720 deciding to marry his pregnant girlfriend who agrees on the condition that he change his last name to something nicer sounding. Influenced by the sounds emanating from a church tower in Charleston, he decides on Bell. Fast forward to the Revolutionary War and the Bell family who own and manage the wharf along with several homes and have a well known reputation within the community. Enter Edward Bell returning from law school in England after hearing that his home town is going to be invaded by the British. His father sends him to escort his mother, located at their nearby summer home, to a safer location, but he is too late. Local men, loyal to the crown, take it upon themselves to loot and pillage the revolutionary friendly family, and Edward’s mom is shot in the stomach. This begins a feud between the two families which interweaves throughout future generations. It’s also the first of many violent deaths which permeate the plot. The Revolutionary War takes it toll on the members of the Bell family, but the widows and their children carry on into the War of 1812 where Charleston’s harbor is once again invaded. Strife continues as the political climate changes the focus of the landowners who insist on slavery, despite the laws that restrict the slave trade in the town. This leads to the Civil War which once again pits neighbor against neighbor. The Union eventually wins out (spoiler alert) and somehow the Bell family survives the mayhem of the Antebellum South, barely, with some hope towards the future of Charleston, South Carolina.
Mayhem is the key word. I chose to listen to the audio read by George Guidall, an abridged version, and there appeared to be an excess of deaths, mostly murders, although Mother Nature had her hand in some spectacular means of demise. This book would make a great basis for literary bingo, or better yet, a drinking tournament. The reader can’t help but be sucked up into the drama, rooting for their favorites, booing the villains (and there are a lot of those to hiss at). Jakes has a talent for creating vivid characters and a fast moving plot and in Charleston he has not lost his touch. Any of his series is a good bet for an excellent read, including this historical novel which contains real life events and personalities along with the fiction. Four stars. This review also appears on Goodreads.