Book Review: “Centennial” by James Michener (1974)

At 1086 pages, Centennial is probably the longest work of fiction I have ever read, and while the size was initially daunting, the reading itself was thoroughly pleasant, making the book seem much shorter than it really was. A doctor friend had recommended Michener to me once several months ago, and because I had known of Michener’s average book length and I also know of doctors’ schedules, I was immediately curious as to how a man so busy could consume books so large. Something special must have drawn him, and I just had to see what that was. I mention all this to say that Centennial is my first Michener novel to try (it was the first one I saw while out garage saling since having the talk with my friend), but it will not be the last. Over the past month, I have picked up fourteen more of his books and plan to read them periodically over the next several years.

Because I had no idea what to expect in this story, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Centennial has a great beginning set in modern times to get the reader accustomed to the story. Each chapter is a narrative submission from a researching professor to a magazine board, a context which really allows the reader to accept the novel as probable non-fiction, though certainly it is purely historical fiction at its best. Looking at the cover, I had anticipated an epic and ancient soap opera from the ’70s, but what I really got was a down-to-earth lesson in the history of the American West. A full 180 pages in (what would normally be the half-way point of a normal novel), I felt like I was just beginning, and it felt awesome. The book took me maybe a month to get through in my off-hours at home, but that single month encapsulated the entire world history of a single location in Colorado, from the birth of rocks to the 100th birthday of a state, and I feel Michener left a whole lot unsaid.

Judging by Michener’s acknowledgments pages (yes, pages), one can easily ascertain that the man did his homework for this book. Having read this historically accurate fiction, I can now say that I have a better understanding of cowboys, Indians, and the entire Old West. My having read this book will now affect how I will read and understand novels and histories of the American West or how I will watch old Westerns on the screen.

I’ll just mention briefly who, of all the characters in the history of Centennial, were my favorite. I think the two I liked the best were the back-to-back characters, Lame Beaver and Jacques Pasquinel. Lame Beaver who grew up an Arapaho Indian warrior, qualified to lead yet never wanting the mantle, and Jacques Pasquinel who fled his many lives for the one hidden in the wilderness–these were the characters who truly built the history from which Centennial sprung, for they were the originators who worked the area though never the land.

I enjoyed Centennial immensely, and though it bears Michener’s trademark Evolution and though it shows an increase in foul language as history progresses, the book was free from gratuitous sex and even had a split-second of Christianity. I would recommend it to someone willing to take the time to enjoy some historical fiction and get a genuine peek into our nation’s history, sad at times, but ultimately terribly pleasant.

©2012 E.T.

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3 Responses to Book Review: “Centennial” by James Michener (1974)

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Mexico” by James Michener | Elliot's Blog

  2. Pingback: Book Review: “Hawaii” by James Michener (1959) | Elliot's Blog

  3. Pingback: Book Review: “Space” by James Michener (1982) | Elliot's Blog

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