If you like your Civil War fiction strictly in the Rhett and Scarlett mode, with liberal doses of chivalry, patriotism and unrequited love, John Jakes' massive, lusty, highly readable "Love and War," the second volume of his "North and South Trilogy," is most assuredly not the book for you. Oh, the Lost Cause components are here all right, but so, also, in delicious detail, are the wicked and tawdry doings of a memorable cast of connivers, wimps and scoundrels, none of whom would list Nathan Hale as a role model. Rhett and Scarlett wouldn't stand a chance with this crowd.
As he did in his best-selling "North and South," the first volume of the projected trilogy, set in the 20-year period preceding the Civil War, Jakes blends extensive historical detail into the continuing saga of two fictional families -- the Hazards, Pennsylvania ironmasters, and the Mains, South Carolina rice plantation owners -- whose friendship, forged by West Point ties, is once again sorely tested by the impending sectional schism.
Jakes resumes his narrative in this separate, self-contained second volume in the aftermath of Fort Sumter and moves his characters with imaginative sweep and staccato pacing through the major events of the war. He skillfully skirts a major shortcoming of many historical novels, in which historical detail and fictional figures move on parallel tracks, with history serving as nothing more than a brightly painted backdrop. The Mains and Hazards are very much a part of the events -- factual and fictional -- which comprise Jakes' recounting of the era.
Jakes' meshing of fact and fiction works best in action sequences. Billy Hazard's ordeal as a prisoner of war amid the horrors of Richmond's Libby Prison has a credible ring, as does Cooper Main's harrowing test dive of the Confederate submersible Hunley in the waters of Charleston harbor. Dialogue between fictional and historical characters, especially social chitchat with Mary Chesnut, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, rings less true, and some historical names are virtually dropped into the narrative, as when Orry Main silently ponders his West Point years: "Orry could recall any number of first-rate Yankees from the Academy, including one he had known personally and liked very much. Where was Sam Grant serving now?"
These are minor failings. Jakes succeeds in reducing the sheer enormousness of the conflict to a personal level, one in which good men and women struggle to keep a prewar friendship alive notwithstanding their divided loyalties, and the men, once linked by West Point friendships and imbued with precepts of duty, honor, country, try to adhere to those precepts now that "country" is gone. In this context, Union officer Billy Hazard's attempted escape from Libby Prison with the aid of family friends (but Confederate enemies) Charles and Orry Main, is understandable and therefore plausible, as is Orry's attempt to foil an assassination plot by southern extremists against the Davis government that he serves but for which he has little love.
While the good guys have their innings, it's the bad guys who make Jakes' story cook. John Jakes' villains are tops -- on a scale of 1 (odious) to 10 (loathsome), they are beyond loathsome.
Although she has tough competition, none surpasses the beauteous, malevolent Ashton Main, a piranha in hoop skirts with the social conscience of J.R. Ewing. Ashton does not shrink from the depravities of war: "In what other time but wartime could she have brought her husband and her lover into the same business enterprise? It was macabre, but it was exhilarating." Not to mention profitable. Ashton, her nerd of a husband and her truly despicable lover amass a sizable profit by shipping delicacies through the Union blockade and selling them to a populace starving for such creature comforts -- letting them eat cake, imported cheese, tinned meats.
The Ashton triumvirate faces stiff competition in the ogre sweepstakes from the duo of Stanley ("I'd rather be condemned as a live coward than perish as a patriot") Hazard and his social-climbing, closet Know-Nothing scold of a wife, Isabel. They parlay Stanley's Washington War Department contacts and contracts and their hastily acquired New England shoe factory into a sweet $6 mill or so by selling shoddy footwear "to the poor fools who were dying for slogans on both sides of the war." Stanley and Isabel, sole survivors.
And lurking in the shadows is the longtime enemy of the Mains and Hazards, the brutal Elkanah Bent, murderer, coward, deserter -- and these are his redeeming qualities.
Jakes embroiders this monumental saga with numerous subplots, deft touches, and colorful marginal characters (among them, Stanley's aptly named birdbrain of a mistress, Jeannie Canary). The result is a graphic, fast-paced amalgam of good, evil, love, lust, war, violence and Americana.
It's a long way from Tara.