For John Jakes, publication of "North and South" is an important milestone: the first of his historical novels to appear in hard covers. The eight novels of his "Kent Family Chronicles" were published as paperback originals, acquiring a huge and loyal following; more than 30 million copies have been sold. The question that Jakes and his publisher now face is whether he can handle the leap from a $2.95 price tag to one of $14.95, and the more complicated shift from sales in airports and convenience stores to sales primarily in bookstores.

The guess here is that he can and will. His fans, having come at last to the end of the Kent saga, surely are by now ready for another panoramic, populous, mildly lusty trek through the pages of American history. "North and South" is just that. The first novel in what Jakes has announced as a trilogy, it takes place in the two decades before the Civil War; it follows the lives of two large families, one in Pennsylvania and one in South Carolina; it touches on virtually all the major public events of the day and several of the minor ones; it has good folks and bad folks, rich folks and poor folks, white folks and black folks. All of the ingredients are there.

It's easy enough to be condescending toward fiction as interminable and resolutely middle-brow as this. It's true that Jakes lacks imagination at characterization, that his prose is rarely better (or worse) than competent, that he knows (and pulls) all the old melodramatic tricks. All of that is true, yet it remains that his novels are reliably entertaining in a solid, predictable, comfortably old-fashioned way. Like such predecessors in the genre of popular historical fiction as Thomas B. Costain and Samuel Shellabarger, Jakes delivers what the genre promises: a long tale sure to last the reader through many subway trips or winter evenings, a tale that while it entertains will also instruct, taking the reader on a painless excursion into the past.

Jakes is a popularizer, and proud of it. His hero is Bruce Catton, the author of smoothly narrated Civil War histories that were read avidly in the '50s and '60s. His contempt for academic historians runs deep; describing, in an afterword, a memoir that proved useful in his research, he says, "If professional historians wrote with a fraction of the color, humor and humanity of this 19th-century soldier, history would be a more attractive study to many more people." And of his own work he has this to say:

"The primary purpose of 'North and South' is to entertain. Still, I wanted the story to be an accurate reflection of the period; not so much a retelling of every last incident that contributed to the outbreak of war in Charleston harbor, but a fair presentation of prevailing attitudes and tensions on both sides."

This I think he has accomplished. Because Jakes is a beneficiary of recent scholarship (much though he might hate to admit it) on slavery, and of altered attitudes toward that peculiar institution, he is able to give what is doubtless a far more realistic and honest portrait of the antebellum South than has previously been available in popular historical fiction.

Jakes loses the competition against Margaret Mitchell in the departments of characterization, local color and prose style, but he wins hands down in the department of accuracy. He does give us some of the peaceable kingdom that is at the center of the Old South myth, but he is at pains to recreate the agonies of slavery and the human degradation (of both slave and master) that it involved. He gives us no fawning darkies, though he does give us some beaten and exhausted ones, and he gives us no benign masters handing out "Chris'mas gif'." In the words and thoughts of his most interesting character, an aristocratic South Carolinian named Cooper Main, he skillfully presents the anti-slavery case as a few progressive Southerners embraced it, a case having less to do with morality than with the economic insanity of the system, especially as contrasted with the North's free-labor economy. Similarly, he effectively characterizes both the rabid secessionists and the many Southerners of basic good will who found themselves caught in a maze of social, political and moral confusion.

The tie between the two families -- the Mains of Carolina, rice planters, and the Hazards of Pennsylvania, ironmasters -- is forged at West Point, where George Hazard and Orry Main are classmates in the early 1840s. As events take them to the Mexican War and then back to their families, as the cast of characters grows steadily larger, the theme that binds the novel together is the dire threat that sectionalism and secession pose to the ordinary course of human friendship. Toward the end Orry Main says: "I want the Hazards and the Mains to keep their ties unbroken. There are few things in the world that matter as much as friendship and love. They're both very fragile. We must preserve them till these times pass." It remains to be seen, in the second and third volumes, if and how that can be done.

Meantime let it be said that Jakes has assembled an intelligent, unpretentious entertainment that a great many readers will find undemandingly enjoyable. Say it for Jakes that if his characters are out of Central Casting, he nonetheless makes the reader care about them; that if his villains are entirely too villainous, his heroes are refreshingly complex and well endowed with ambiguities; that he has a firm grasp on the intricate connections between private lives and public events. "North and South" is an honest piece of work.