|By John Jakes
(Dutton, New York City, 1998)
Reviewed by Trace Edward Zaber
|s most people of my acquaintance know, in my eyes, John Jakes is king. His characters never fail to intrigue; his seamless insertion of historical facts never cease to amaze, and his intermingling of fictional characters and real-life personages is his unequaled specialty. The eight-book series, The Kent Family Chronicles, along with the North & South Trilogy, remain my all-time favorites in the genre of historical fiction. These are the very books that inspired me to try my hand at novel writing. For that alone, Mr. Jakes has my undying gratitude and admiration.
Needless to say, any and all new offerings by this extraordinary talent are eagerly anticipated. And how I eagerly anticipated American Dreams, which begins where the marvelous Homeland ended, albeit a few years later.
I will admit, I experienced mild disappointment when first I began reading. Oh, not that the characters, storyline, and historical details are anything but typical Jakes magic, but I was expecting the novel to feature Paul Crown, the young man who (in Homeland) immigrated from Germany to Chicago in the late 1800s to make a new life for himself as a moving-picture camera operator during the Spanish/American war. Since Paul had proven himself a worthy lead character, I was hoping this sequel would dwell on his further adventures. Certainly, Paul does make an appearance, but in American Dreams he has been relegated to more of a minor role. Mr. Jakes, instead, has opted to feature Pauls cousins from Homeland, Fritzi Crown, and, to a lesser degree, her brother Carl.
My disappointment, thankfully, was short-lived. It soon becomes clear that Fritzi Crown is worthy of the starring role she is given. Though not a standard beauty, with her skinny legs, flat chest, and shock of wiry and unmanageable blonde hair, this tomboy does have a certain something, a uniqueness that makes her unforgettable to the many persons she will meet as the story progresses.
Fritzi immediately charmed me. In the opening chapter, while thwarting a possible rape beside the waters of Lake Michigan, and without the aid of her trusty weapon of choice—a sharp hat pin—Fritzi relies on her natural-born gift for imitation.
Dont let the long hair fool you, bub, she says to her would-be attacker in a replica of his manly baritone. Youve got the wrong fellow.
The tramps vast shock gives her the seconds needed to make good her escape. This talent, along with her quick thinking and unwavering determination, will eventually make her a star. With dreams of a stage career (much to her fathers dismay), Fritzi soon heads for New York City.
Her road, however, proves difficult, and at times, perilous. We follow Fritzis less-than-meteoric rise to stardom, from her days as a starving thespian seeking that ever-elusive noteworthy role, to her steady gain in popularity by becoming, in her desperation, an actress in silent pictures, a medium she rather detests.
As with all of his previous historical work, Mr. Jakes comes through in spades, placing the reader smack dab in the center of the early motion-picture industry, from the hills of New Jersey to a one-horse town called Hollywood. While forging friendships with the likes of Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle, Fritzi makes a name for herself in one- and two-reelers. Her comedic timing, unconventional appearance, and chameleon-like expressions prove a powerful box-office draw. Still, despite her healthy income and growing success, Fritzi yearns to return to the stage. She doesnt want to be labeled a film actress, but a serious actress. Can she make the split with Hollywood and return to New York City, especially after she loses her heart to a movie extra?
Along with Fritzis story, we also spend some time with her brother. Obsessed with all forms of transportation, the young Carl Crown heads for Detroit. There, he makes friends with Henry Ford, works on the racing circuit for Barney Oldfield, and forsakes love and marriage to a beautiful heiress, all for his dream to become an aviator.
In England, Paul Crown continues his career as a camera operator. Married and with a growing family, he finds himself in the company of people like Winston Churchill, filming often-violent suffragette movements in London, and capturing on newsreel footage the darker moments in human history, especially with the outbreak of the first World War.
The bottom line? Knowing how I feel about the author, do I even need to spell it out? Well, perhaps I should, in order to make it abundantly clear . . .
Throughout these 500 pages, Mr. Jakes delivers the goods. I daresay, out of all Mr. Jakess female characters, Fritzi Crown came extremely close to beating out North & Souths Madeline Main as my favorite. And believe me, that says a lot. In my humble opinion, though American Dreams might not be the best book Mr. Jakes has ever written, I still believe it outshines 99% of all other historicals on offer. Like all commendable historical novels, the characters in American Dreams are enchanting, complicated, and utterly human. The history is detailed, convincing, and absolutely flawless. The story is occasionally amusing, ofttimes poignant, and always gripping. For anyone who has an interest in the days leading up to World War I, early auto racing and manufacturing, or the film industry in its infancy, this book is a must-read.
There, now, Ive said it. And is anyone truly surprised?
Long live the king!