I love the 1890s. I love old technology. I love stories of immigrants coming to America.
Homeland by John Jakes has all of that in spades.
That’s because it’s loooong, baby. Up to 1,200 pages, depending on the format you get it in.
But that’s gooooooood, because the characters are fascinating and the times are turbulent with social parallels to our own.
Set in the 1890s, this is the first novel in the two-part saga of the Crown Family of Chicago. The story uses the same captivating formula found in the works of James Michener:
In "Homeland," John Jakes sweeps ordinary people up in great events and encounters with famous historical figures.Click to tweet
At the center of it all is Pauli Kroner, a 14-year-old German boy whom we find working in a Berlin hotel kitchen. Unfortunately, the consumptive aunt with whom he had been living dies and he becomes an orphan.
But hope grows like a flower, even in crappy circumstances
That hope is in America, the land of new beginnings. But first Pauli needs the guts to cross the ocean on his own in the horrible steerage class before making his way to Chicago, the epicenter of this huge novel, where wealthy Uncle Joseph owns a brewery.
Pauli is welcomed and given employment in the brewery, but he is exposed to fellow workers who want to use violence – the “propaganda of the deed” – to bring down the wealthy of society who treat their workers with indifference, miserable wages and no regard for their safety or humanity.
At least home life is tranquil, right? Not a chance.
Why can’t they all just get along?
Even though the Crowns have more than most people, turmoil rules the house. Above all else, Joseph wants to maintain the status quo, but he can’t get along with his eldest son, Joe Jr., who falls in with the radical socialist movement sweeping through the nation.
To top that off, Joseph’s wife, Ilsa, has the pigheaded idea that women should not suffer gladly in traditional roles. She joins the progressive women’s movement that is causing turmoil in the streets and within families over the right to vote. Good lord, is nothing sacred anymore?
Surely Pauli, now older – and who Americanizes his name to Paul Crown – won’t disappoint the old man, will he? You bet he does. They have a falling-out that gets his keister tossed out of the house, out of his brewery job and into poverty in the slums.
But surely true love will conquer all, won’t it?
Paul falls for Juliette Vanderhoff – sounds rich, doesn’t she? Well, her father is a meat-packing millionaire who some call Pork and who hates Paul for being a no-good, rotten, dirty immigrant. Paul doesn’t ingratiate himself when the police catch him seducing Juliette in a hotel room and throw him into jail where it is hoped that the scum in there will lavish their own brutal punishments on the German Romeo. (Note: He survives.)
A nation nears the abyss
The personal turbulence faced by the characters in Homeland is mirrored outside the home. Jakes masterfully draws the reader into the times when the Panic of 1893 starts a four-year depression that sees 500 banks close and unemployment rates soar throughout the states, including an incredible 43% of workers laid off in Michigan.
America’s gold reserves fall so low that the U.S. government has to borrow gold from J.P. Morgan, the “Wolf of Wall Street,” as well as the Rothschild banking family in England.
In the “company town” that George Pullman built in Chicago, his 4,000 essentially enslaved workers engage in a bloody strike at his railcar factory when their wages are cut but not their rents. Violence and riots spread throughout 27 states, affecting 250,000 workers. Socialism gains an ever-stronger foothold among the disgruntled, and the federal government reacts by sending in the Army.
Getting in on the birth of the movies
Despite the turbulence all around him, Paul finds a profession in the brand-new technology of “moving pictures,” learning from a shady character how to tell a story with silent film. Jakes goes into fascinating detail not only to show how the pioneers in cinema cranked out the movies but also how ingenious people like Paul’s mentor developed their own movie cameras.
After learning the trade, Paul becomes a newsreel cameraman and is sent to Cuba to follow the American troops as they go into battle in the bloody Spanish-American War. There he comes across Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders and re-meets Uncle Joseph, a former soldier in the Union Army who has answered this newest call for military duty.
Other historical figures of the time who make appearances in Homeland include Jane Addams, a pioneering social worker; novelist Stephen Crane; Eugene Debs, a union leader and Socialist Party candidate for president of the United States; inventor Thomas Edison; and Clara Barton, the pioneer nurse who founded the American Red Cross.
To sum up, Homeland is a big, big, big sprawling read, but Jakes holds it all together. Quite satisfying.
Hey, what about the second book?
As mentioned earlier, Homeland is the first book in the Crown Family saga. The second is American Dreams. Although many readers are just as enthusiastic about that book, I found it to be too much in a cookie-cutter fashion, as if Jakes took some scissors, snipped out names and occupations in Homeland, then plugged in new names and occupations, thereby following the same pattern that already had been established. Although the events in the second book are different, I still felt I was reading “Homeland Redux,” so I cannot recommend American Dreams as enthusiastically as Homeland, which I found to be captivating.
Like sagas? If so, Jakes just may be your guy
Before Homeland, he churned out the popular eight-book Kent Family Chronicles that starts before the American Revolution and ends in 1890. All of the books in the series were multiple million sellers, and three of them were on the New York Times best seller list in the same year.
Later, Jakes wrote the three-book North and South trilogy (whoops, that’s redundant) about the Main and Hazard families who are on opposite sides in the American Civil War. Reflecting Jakes’ popularity, these books also were major best sellers.