The name James Michener is anathema to many literary critics, but the American public, which has bought Michener’s books in vast quantities, regards him with a favor equaled by few and exceeded by none. The reader of the present novel can without difficulty see why each group reacts as it does.
The author has seized upon an event arousing widespread attention, the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North before Congress, as a virtually irresistible hook to interest the reader in his story. Major Norman Starr, like his counterpart in reality, stands accused of illegal activities in aid of anti-Communist forces in Central America. As the book opens, he is preparing to face his Congressional challengers. He conducts an examination of conscience through recalling the lives of his ancestors, and it is this family history that forms the substance of Michener’s book.
The family of the major has long been known for its tradition of service to the United States. The earliest character depicted, Jared Starr, served under Alexander Hamilton in the Revolutionary War; his son was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention; and, in the next generation, a Starr held a seat on the Supreme Court.
By this point, the reader will have no difficulty in seeing that Michener has not constructed an orthodox novel at all. Quite the contrary, he has used a fictionalized family to present vignettes from American history. The traditions of the American past obviously matter greatly to the author, and his recalling of episodes from this past aims to move the reader to recapture patriotic values. As the United States approaches the bicentennial of the Constitution, it is clear that Michener believes these values have been temporarily occluded, a loss that he sets out to ameliorate through his secular homilies. (The book includes a copy of the Constitution.)
Michener’s presentation of history, however, has little interpretive depth. His twice-told tales never question the opinions of what Dwight MacDonald termed “middlebrow” culture. On the other hand, Michener’s wide audience could, if interested, mount an effective defense of his work. He presents, in a vivid and readily comprehensible fashion, a stirring rendition of the American past. As a song popular many years ago has it, “Is There Anything the Matter with That?”