Why BOOKPOODAH Is
Books by James Michener
Michener’s big epics cover millennia, if not eons of history. I used to say, half jokingly, that the first 80 pages were ancient (e.g., The Source, which began with a human sacrifice to the god Ba’al), prehistoric (e.g., Centennial, which began with the birth of a bison on the prairie half of what is now Colorado, before human habitation) or geologic (e.g., Hawaii, which began with undersea volcanoes pushing up through the waves to form the islands). I was always impatient for the real story to begin. Likewise, the last 80 pages were more or less the present – a winding down of the generations-long story, a let down. But in between – a thousand pages of fascination!
Michener and his stable of writers turned out a lot of books. I suspect that, as time went on, the stable wrote more than he did. The earlier the publication date, the better the book. Maybe I’m just imagining it. Below, I have arranged his books (that I have read) in rough groups of my assessment. I will add reviews as the muse dictates.
The Covenant I suppose I should do some research before publishing this review. I should consult the opinions of professional historians, probably. What I am about to say may be total nonsense, but this is my page, so what the heck? My earliest awareness of South Africa was that it was one of many parts of the World colored red on the map pulled down in front of the blackboard during Geography time in the fourth grade. Part of the British Empire. That was as far as it went until a few years later when I picked up a vague notion of the Boer War that occurred there and that a lot of diamonds and gold were mined there. In my middle teens I read Something of Value by Robert Ruark and thought it a very fine book, indeed. That was about it until I read “The Covenant”. I now know a lot about South Africa. At least it is a lot relative to what I knew before. It is not the historical poodah, however, that causes me to include this book in the “Important” category. It is the deeper understanding and appreciation of the social and cultural forces which made South Africa what it was and is. And, I am amazed to watch, Michener predicted a very important component of the nature of post-apartheid South Africa.The original Boers were Dutch Reformists. They were fundamentalists who took their religion seriously and their Bible literally. When they first assayed to press eastward from north of the Cape and inhabit the land of the Zulus, they met, as one might expect, stiff resistance. Their wagon train of four hundred people (including women and children) was soon surrounded by 17,500 very agitated Zulu warriors. They had a day or two before hostilities began and made use of the time by writing a contract with God, which all signed. This document, the “Covenant”, promised that if God would see them through the pending confrontation, they would forever heed His injunctions as given to the Hebrews upon entering Canaan after their forty-year trip from Egypt to the promised land, i.e., they would make the indigenous population their slaves (“hewers of wood and carriers of water”) and would never mix with them – they would forever remain apart from them. In Dutch, apartness is “apartheid”. During the ensuing hostilities, which lasted, as I remember, two days, several thousand Zulu warriors were killed and they retired from the field. The Boers suffered two minor wounds. Well, hey! A deal’s a deal, right? Specially with God! According to Michener, this “Covenent” with God was the bedrock of national and social policy which guided The Union of South Africa thenceforth. So now we understand it in part.
Michener’s other important observation is that the m’Beles (the majority indigenous population) are remarkably gentle and, by European standards, forgiving to a fault. He advised that the whites were at risk of eventually exhausting this forbearance and that they should dissolve the policies of apartheid, and, if they were to do so, they would be surprised at the leniency that would be displayed. Subsequent events have borne him out. To me, the performance of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee is one of the most astounding and heartening developments of all time.
Texas, perhaps, should be in the GREAT category. I may have downgraded it on personal grounds. On numerous occasions, he denigrates oil people and glorifies the cowboy over roughnecks and farmers. He paints oilmen as uncouth thugs. My grandfather was raised a cotton farmer in East Texas and became an oil roughneck. He and my grandmother (also raised on a cotton farm) despised cowboys as being uncouth thugs. My great uncle was an oil wildcatter. A sweeter man you never met. Other than that, I guess it was a great book.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri