Monday, June 13, 2011

Back to the '70s

The year is 1976.  I am riding my "Spirit of '76" AMF two wheeler with a banana seat around and around my block.  Everywhere, parents are reading.  Don't get me wrong.  The moms are sipping chablis, and the dads are drinking Strohs from the can, but even Mrs. Matthews, the mom who wears short shorts and subscribes to Cosmo instead of Good Housekeeping, is reading.  What could possibly attract this much interest from suburban thirty-somethings of the 70s?  The Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes. 

The Kent Family Chronicles is a series of 8 books, that tracks the Kent Family from its beginnings in France in the 1700s through its journeys to England and then America.  The first volume, The Bastard, was released in 1974, and the final volume, The Americans, was released in 1979.  The series is so ingrained in my recollection of the 1970s, that a few years back, I asked my mom for some of the volumes for Christmas.  Now my parents are generous people, and Christmas is always a many-packaged holiday, but I am having a hard time describing how surprised and excited I was when I opened a box that contained all 8 of The Chronicles.  I started reading right away, and I got through the first two volumes at a brisk pace.  However, the third volume, The Seekers, was a disturbing disappointment, and left me reluctant to continue with the series.

Recently I was talking to my parents about books that we have read more than once, and The Chronicles came up.  I don't think that either of my parents re-read any of the volumes, but they kept their copies for decades, just in case they ever wanted to.  That the books meant that much to them, and admittedly, to me too, encouraged me to pick up the fourth volume, The Furies, and give The Chronicles another try.

It was horrible at first.  Really, it was.  I kept thinking that the cliche that everyone had awful taste in the 70s must be the only explanation for The Chronicles' popularity.  But that seemed too . . . too. . . um. . .cliche.  So I kept reading, to try to find the attraction, and I think that I succeeded.

The story in The Furies is shallow and predictable.  The dialogue frequently consists of one character asking another what the news is, and in this way, the news of the day is conveyed to the reader.  The coincidences are ridiculous, and have a Forrest Gump-like quality.  For instance, how likely is it that one character, Amanda, would be at the Alamo with Davy Crockett, stake a claim in the gold rush, become a friend to Frederick Douglas, discuss the first elevator with Mr. Otis, and participate in the underground railroad?  Not very.  But then it occurred to me.  Forrest Gump came out after The Chronicles.  Could it be possible that the writers of Forrest Gump saw how successful The Chronicles were and tried to take it a step further?  Unlikely. 

But was I on to something?  I started paying closer attention to the information that was conveyed in response to a character's question, "What's the news from Philadelphia?" or "What is the gossip in New York?"  In response to questions like that, the reader learned endless trivia.  Q:  What was the only thing John Jacob Astor would ingest at the end of his life?  A:  Breast milk, from a woman hired to provide the same.*  Q:  When was the safety pin perfected?  A:  1849.*  Maybe the readers of the 1970s were willing to overlook flaws in the story, if they felt that they were brushing up on history, and picking up trivial facts at the same time.  So let's take this to the next step.  Q:  What year was the board game "Trivial Pursuit" invented?  A:  1979 - the same year that the last volume of  The Chronicles was released.**

*Answers according to Jakes' characters, and may or may not be true.
** Answer according to Wikipedia, and may or may not be true.

All told, The Chronicles were wildly popular for a reason.  The story is light, predictable, and unrealistic, but interesting nonetheless.  Along the way, the reader learns the facts and trivia of the era.  The Furies covers the period from 1836-1852.  Jakes is leading the reader up to the Civil War, and he's got my interest, now that I get his style.  I haven't read historical fiction from the Civil War era other than Gone with the Wind and Rhett Butler's People.  I'm a little excited about reading about the era from a Northern perspective, which I think I will get, based on where the characters are living in the 1850s.

There's a new book, that The Times just reviewed, A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles, which made me think of The Chronicles.  I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but from the sound of the review, it shares The Chronicles' Forrest Gump-ish-ness, and is also billed as an epic but enjoyable read.  Interesting. . .

Next Up:  Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz.  Amazon assures me that Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer is on the way, so I have to hurry to read SOC to prepare.  I first ordered Tree of Codes from Borders on February 22, so I'm very glad to be finally receiving it!

Almost Done Listening To:  That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

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