NYT review of A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles, I thought that it would be a modern day version of John Jakes' Kent Family Chronicles. The review indicated that it was an epic novel, set at the turn of the 20th century, with famous people making appearances, and informing the reader about the trivia and the inventions of the time. Moment in the Sun is specifically set from 1897 through 1903, whereas The Kent Family Chronicles span a greater amount of time in several volumes. Moment is different, however from the Chronicles in an important way - the writing is really good.
Sayles chose five main character groupings, and created his story around them. The first involves Hod, who goes West to be a miner, but finds himself continually running from the law and men who he has defied. Eventually, he becomes a volunteer in the Spanish-American and then the Philippine-American Wars. Next, there are Niles and Harry Manigault, who are the sons of a Judge in Wilmington, North Carolina. Niles is the black sheep of the family who is always finding trouble. He meets up with Hod out West, and rejoins him as a volunteer in the Wars. Harry has a physical handicap which makes it difficult to walk, and is thought of as "the good son." He finds his place in the world, separate from his family and the roles that it has dictated. The third grouping is the Lunceford family. The father is an African American physician in Wilmington, until he is driven from his home in the 1898 riot. Then he, his wife, and daughter move to New York, while his son remains off fighting in the Wars, on behalf of a country that doesn't treat him as an equal. The fourth grouping includes Royal and Jubal Scott. Royal fights in the Wars beside Junior Lunceford, while Jubal stays home and tries to make his way as a hard working African American who is still bound to abide by the rules of the past. The final grouping focuses on Diosdado, and his band of rebel fighters in the Philippines. There are enough minor characters with substantial roles, that I am sure some readers would come up with different groupings involving even more characters than I have. Although famous people make appearances, they don't alter the course of the story, and seem to fit in naturally, with the exception of Mark Twain, who was inserted in Jakes' style.
Have I mentioned that A Moment in the Sun is almost 1,000 pages? I managed to read the book in about four weeks, and was never bored. The story moved along quickly, and kept my attention. I had never read anything about the Spanish-American War before, and never even knew that we fought a Philippine-American War, so those were interesting to read about. The comparisons to the more current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were obvious, and thought provoking. The stories about the African Americans still trying to prove themselves decades after slavery ended were really touching, and those were the stories that I liked best.
Some criticisms? Oh all right, if you insist. There was not a woman with a meaningful role in the first third of the book. Also, in a thousand page book, I don't want to meet any new characters after about page 750. The book should be so long because it takes time to wrap it up, not to keep adding new things. I would have cut out the whole story line involving the jail in New York (this began around page 800), and conveyed all of the important details that we got from that section through a combination of the newsboy and Harry. Although the book does wrap up nicely in the last 50 pages, that was just a decision that Sayles made. He could have kept the stories going for another 500 pages, as he left the characters with futures set to unfold which will certainly be just as interesting as their pasts.
This book was published by Dave Eggers' publishing house, McSweeney's, and was a 2011 NYT Notable Book. My guess is that a more commercially motivated house would have cut this book down to a more marketable novel half the size of Moment. All told, I can't think of any friends who I would insist must read this novel, but, if you are (1) looking for a long book to read over the summer, (2) interested in the Spanish-American War era, or (3) want to know more about early African American soldiers, this would be a great book for you.
Although I eventually broke down and bought the book on Kindle (the hardcover version kept making my arm fall asleep), I did check it out from the library to begin with, so I am counting it for the Support Your Library Challenge. That puts me at the half way mark for that challenge!
Next Up: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Still Listening to: The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer