(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Mint juleps and magnolias, a busy harbor and busier plantations, and tradition and change all swirl about the vortex that is Charleston, more historical fiction from John Jakes, the popular author of The Americans: The Kent Family Chronicles (1980), the North and South trilogy (1982, 1984, 1987), and others. Here, Jakes follows a family as they move about South Carolina, and how they are swept up in the tides of reform, from independence from Great Britain to the abolition of slavery.

Thomas Bell is the successful patriarch of a well-to-do plantation clan, which includes offspring such as Edward, a patriot, and Adrian, a Tory. In a long tale of intertwining interests from 1720 to 1866, the Bells are joined by other families, most notably the children of the enslaved Daniel Poorly, a hero of the Revolutionary War, and of Ladimer Lark, a scoundrel of the worst kind.

Jakes’s strength is his scope, as a cinematic scale seems to let events sweep across the centuries and the continent even as they sweep through a few families. Between a short prologue (in which the heritage—and naming—of the Bell family is established) and a longer afterword (Jakes’s somewhat personalized acknowledgments) is a book organized into three times: When the city was first divided, when slavery tore apart Southern cities like Charleston as well as Northern communities, and when the ashes of the Civil War challenged individuals, families, and the nation to attempt Reconstruction. Two brief transitions bridge the times, summarizing intervening years when Federalists and Democratic-Republicans debated the Constitution and the course of the new country, when epidemics and fires preceded action at Fort Sumter.

An epic saga, Charleston occasionally seems detailed to the point of density or distraction. However, Jakes’s veteran skills and his knack for injecting into his plot real people such as Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion, Frederick Douglass, Jefferson Davis, and other historical figures, save the pacing and keep the story on track.

With abolitionists and aristocrats, heroes and hellions, Charleston will appeal to Jakes fans, and with additional characters such as the fictional abolitionist and suffragette Alexandra Bell, the book could grab the attention of others fond of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Jakes makes those decades and the large events within them real, as real as their echoes, which still ring through the nation.