Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1153
Published two years after his nonfiction examination of the Kent State University shootings—Kent State: What Happened and Why (1971)—Centennial returns to the genre upon which Michener’s reputation rests. Like Hawaii and The Source, Centennial is a fascinating blend of historical fact and fiction. Unlike his previous novels, though, which are set in exotic lands, Centennial takes place in the continental United States.
In Centennial, Michener employs the same type of narrative artifice that he used in The Source, but which he believed was unnecessary in Chesapeake, The Covenant, and Space (1982). The contemporary presenter of the historical episodes in this novel is the fictional Professor Lewis Vernor, who is commissioned by US magazine to validate a series of articles on a town in Colorado called Centennial.
As in Hawaii, Michener provides a dramatic and historically verifiable explanation of how the land was created and populated. It is in his exposition of the prehistory of Colorado that Michener introduces two themes that run through the entire novel: the survival of the fittest and the persistence of the past into the present. The first human inhabitants of Colorado followed the woolly mammoths across a land bridge from Asia to Alaska thirteen thousand years ago. Michener then moves to the second half of the eighteenth century to introduce the progenitor of many of the characters in the novel, Lame Beaver, who inadvertently makes the area attractive to white men when his golden bullet falls into their hands.
Despite the plethora of Indian lore that Michener provides, Lame Beaver’s story is strangely uninteresting. The thrilling exploits of the first two white men who come on the scene, however—Jacques Pasquinel, a trapper, and Alexander McKeag, a fugitive from Scotland—help to bring the novel alive in chapter 5. McKeag, Pasquinel’s fellow trapper, is a much more complex character; he breaks with Pasquinel after a knife fight with Pasquinel’s half-breed son, Jake. This dispute foreshadows the racial tensions that permeate the remainder of the novel.
The following two chapters document the two forces that contributed to the vanquishing of the culture of the American Indians: the settlers and the United States government. The central character of chapter 7 is Levi Zendt, a former member of a Pennsylvania Dutch community who is ostracized for flirting with his brother’s girlfriend. In his flight from injustice, Levi bears an ironic resemblance to the Indians in chapter 8 who are forced to leave their homeland after their treaties are broken. The courage of Levi and his sixteen-year-old bride, Elly, is underscored by their naïveté, which is revealed early by Levi’s insistence that horses be used instead of oxen to pull his huge Conestoga wagon. Thus, his journey is also a rite of passage, and his tutors are the people who join with them. After Elly dies, he starts a store that becomes the focal point of the town of Zendt’s Farm, later renamed Centennial.
In chapter 7, the whites are firmly established as the dominant race in Colorado by the machinations of the U.S. government and the instrument of its will, the U.S. Cavalry. The domination of the whites is ratified in a treaty during the Civil War that reduces the Indians’ lands to forty-acre allotments on reservations. The degradation of the Indians culminates in a massacre of the Arapaho that is instigated by the fanatical Frank Skimmerhorn.
The novel then moves to its third phase, the civilizing of the West. Chapter 8 is probably the most successful because of its unity and because of the verisimilitude that is achieved by its detailed and authentic portrayal of life on the range. In order to stock the 670,000 acres of range, a transplanted Englishman, Oliver Seccombe, hires a Confederate general and the son of the infamous Frank Skimmerhorn to drive longhorn cattle from Texas to Colorado. The story focuses on a fourteen-year-old boy named Jim Lloyd. Because of Jim’s inexperience as a cowboy and his overall naïveté, it is appropriate that the reader view the trip through his eyes. Throughout the drive, Jim exhibits those qualities that Michener contends were essential in the winning of the West: responsibility, courage, and skill.
Chapter 9 dramatizes the struggles among the various forces of civilization to control the prairie. An immigrant from the Ukraine named Hans Brumbaugh finds farming to be more profitable after he begins irrigating the land to produce potatoes first, then beets. Although Oliver Seccombe maintains an uneasy truce with Brumbaugh, he declares war against the sheep herders and their leader, Messmore Garrett. The tragedy of this conflict is pointed out by Paul Garrett years later, as he observes Hereford cows and sheep grazing together with no apparent harm to the grass.
Michener’s epic narrative culminates in chapter 11, which illustrates what Michener calls the “dark side of western history.” To make ends meet, a destitute actress named Maude Wendell lures a Swede to her bedroom in hopes of blackmailing him. When he protests, she kills him, and she and her son conceal the corpse in an ancient beaver cave. Ironically, the Wendells prosper: Maude becomes a socialite, and her husband and son become unscrupulous real estate agents.
Chapters 12 and 13, which bring the novel into the twentieth century, add a whole new set of characters. Chapter 13 concerns the efforts of Mervin Wendel, the railroad, and an agronomist named Dr. Thomas Dole Creevey to attract farmers to Colorado in 1911. Despite the warnings of Lloyd and Brumbaugh, the immigrants implement Dr. Creevey’s system of dry farming, only to find the promise of the first few years shattered by crop failure in the 1920’s and by the dust storms of the 1930’s.
Like chapter 1, chapter 14 is composed entirely of the frame narrative. In Paul Garrett, Professor Vernor finds a man who epitomizes the history of the West. In Garrett, the genetic strains of many of the main characters converge (although a bit too conveniently to be believable). Yet Paul is also a product of the West in his love and respect for the land. Another frontier quality, courage, surfaces in Paul’s decision to marry a Mexican woman despite the social constraints prohibiting such a union.
Paul acts as Professor Vernor’s guide and introduces him to changing aspects of the West. Looking to the future, Paul tells Professor Vernor that Colorado will be in trouble if it does not acknowledge the fact that humankind and nature have always existed in precarious balance and begin protecting all of its components.
Despite its shortcomings, Centennial is an impressive work. The novel clearly benefits from the years that Michener spent in Colorado. The desert scenes, for example, are much more vividly described than are the desert scenes in his earlier The Covenant. Michener must also be praised for avoiding the big, easy subjects such as gold mining and railroad building and choosing, instead, the more challenging subjects such as irrigation and farming.