by John Jakes
Jakes, that best-selling purveyor of historical fiction, is at it again in a big (785 pages) way. This time the author of The Kent Family Chronicles and The North and South Trilogy tells the sweeping story of a German immigrant, Pauli Kroner, making a new life in America between 1890 and 1900.
When Pauli’s destitute aunt can no longer care for him in Berlin, she sends him off to live with his rich uncle in Chicago, where he comes of age, falls impossibly in love and pursues a career as one of the first newsreel cameramen. As usual, Jakes peppers his tale with real historical figures—significant players from Eugene Debs to Thomas Edison to Teddy Roosevelt. This slice-of-life saga is also chock-full of subplots that embody the controversies of the time: There’s Pauli’s uncle, a Civil War veteran whose moralistic wife disapproves of her husband’s successful brewery; his idealistic cousin, who chooses Socialism over a society life; and his well-bred girlfriend, who must find a way to balance feminist leanings with her traditional upbringing.
History buffs will relish Jakes’s careful research, but those looking for more than wooden characters may be disappointed. In the end, Homeland settles into a mediocrity that seems better suited to a miniseries than a serious historical novel. (Doubleday, $25)