Book Review: The Rebels by John Jakes
Philip Kent, nee Phillipe Charboneau, would much rather be at home, caring for his pregnant wife Anne. But after he was forced to kill his murderous half-brother in self-defense, Philip has gone all in for the cause of the rebels against British rule. Thus it is that on June 17, 1775, Philip finds himself on Breed’s Hill near Boston, waiting for the order to fire on the advancing Redcoats. Too soon, Philip will discover that the price of liberty is steep indeed.
Far to the south in Virginia, young wastrel Judson Fletcher dissipates himself with strong drink and other men’s wives. Denied the woman he truly loves, and disgusted with the system of slavery that gave his family wealth but too weak to stand up against it, Judson dreams of the West, but does not have the courage to go.
Neither man knows it, but destiny will entwine the fates of these rebels who never meet.
In the mid-1970s, America’s mood was pretty glum. We’d lost the Vietnam War, Watergate had done a hatchet job on trust in the federal government, and the economy was not doing at all well. But we did have an important anniversary coming up, the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, generally treated as the birthday of the United States. Two hundred years of freedom (more or less) was something to celebrate, and thoughts turned more and more to that period in our history as 1976 drew near.
One of the most successful tie-ins to the Bicentennial was this series of books, “The Kent Chronicles”, a sweeping saga of one family’s fortunes during the first century or so of the United States of America. Extensively researched and well-outlined (the family tree in this volume indicates which family members appear in volumes that hadn’t been published yet), the series was well received, and at one point John Jakes had three volumes of the series on the New York Times bestseller list at once.
The story is told in tight third-person from the viewpoints of the two men (except for a brief section where Anne Kent is the viewpoint character.) Philip and Judson both meet many historically famous people while never quite making it into the history books themselves.
Philip serves the Continental Army in several important battles and behind the scenes actions. (It helps that he’s close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette.) A series of hard knocks musters him out before the British surrender, but some wise investments by Anne allow him to start his own printing business.
Judson acts as a substitute delegate to the Continental Congress for his ailing brother Donald, even helping to craft the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, his alcoholism and inability to keep it in his pants rob Judson of the chance to sign the document. He then has an even worse failure of character before his last chance at redemption comes up. His old friend George Rogers Clark needs men for a expedition in the West. Beset by some of the worst luck a man can have, will Judson arrive in time?
There’s plenty of exciting action, but it’s interspersed with lengthy sections where Mr. Jakes catches the reader up on events our protagonists weren’t there for, but read about in the papers. This is historical fiction with an emphasis on history.
There’s the expected period racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. Violence abounds, and a couple of characters commit suicide just off-screen. I had forgotten since I read the book as a teen just how much rape there is too.
Rereading this book after forty years, it’s pretty clear that the enormous popularity of the series was at least partially because they were the right books at the right time. They’re very much a product of the Seventies, made for 1970s America. That said, a blast of nostalgia every so often doesn’t hurt.
And now, a video about the Declaration of Independence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrSeCYSnj5Y