The novel opens in 1686 with the story of how a young ironworker named Joseph Moffat finds himself fleeing Scotland for what is now Pennsylvania under the name Joseph Hazard to avoid a murder charge. Jakes’ storytelling sucks you right in with violence and adventure. We also meet a young aristocrat from France named Charles Main (formerly Charles de Main) who is an early settler in the American colony of Carolina making his money in the pelt and slave trade.
These dual prologues provide the reader with a brief explanation of how the Hazard family and Main family find themselves in the North and South respectively. The novel’s linear action really begins in 1842 when George Hazard on Pennsylvania and Orry Main of South Carolina find themselves in the same cadet class at West Point Academy. This is 19 years before the U.S. Civil War kicked off.
By this point, the Hazard family has a successful iron company, and the Main family own a rice plantation with over 150 slaves. Despite the cultural divide, the two lads become fast friends. George is full of humor and knows how to charm the ladies. Orry is more serious and reserved with his only focus being a success as a soldier. Upon graduation, they are deployed to the same infantry unit just as the Mexican-American war is heating up over the annexation of Texas.
Throughout the novel, the moral quandary of slavery is always humming in the background. The Northern characters find the practice repellant, and the Southern characters find a myriad of ways to rationalize enslaving blacks. This percolates up in heated debates throughout the novel that eventually divide the young nation and spark a civil war.
The author was also influenced by plantation novels like Mandingo/Falconhurst series in depicting the savagery of slavery and the stigma of mixed-race romances. In these scenes, there are some shocking images of torturous violence and others of forbidden love. The sex in North and South is all off-page.
The Civil War is not the centerpiece of this epic novel. The War Between the States is the focus of the 1984 sequel, Love and War. Instead, this first book in the trilogy focuses on the North vs. South Cold War — the culture war, if you will, — driven by disagreements regarding slavery. The two families and their respective journeys taking them up to this great divide during a fascinating time in America’s evolution as a nation are the vehicles for Jakes to examine this time in history.
I enjoyed North and South quite a bit, but the book is long. And it felt long. Unlike big books like Lonesome Dove and Pillars of the Earth where the pages fly by and you don’t want it to end, North and South felt like trying to devour a ten-season Netflix series. It’s a lot to carry but never hard to follow. Nevertheless, there are way too many storylines and characters. The fact that there are two more 800-page behemoths in the trilogy makes my head ache.
If you can gather up the energy for a historical epic novel, North and South is a fine choice. It’s a giant meal, but fully-digestible if you’re in the right headspace. I want to know what happens to these characters in the war and thereafter, so I’ll definitely read the sequels. But I need some 180-page pulpy paperbacks to cleanse my palette first.