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First edition cover
|Author||James A. Michener|
|June 12, 1978|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|LC Class||PZ3.M583 Ch PS3525.I19|
The storyline, like much of Michener's work, depicts a number of characters over a long time period. Each chapter begins with a voyage which provides the foundation for the chapter plot. It starts in 1583 with American Indian tribes warring, moves through English settlers throughout the 17th century, slavery and tobacco growing, pirate attacks, the American Revolution and the Civil War, Emancipation and attempted assimilation, to the final major event being the Watergate scandal. The last voyage, a funeral, is in 1978.
- Voyage One: 1583
- The River
- Voyage Two: 1608
- The Island
- Voyage Three: 1636
- The Marsh
- Voyage Four: 1661
- The Cliff
- Voyage Five: 1701
- Rosalind's Revenge
- Voyage Six: 1773
- Three Patriots
- Voyage Seven: 1811
- The Duel
- Voyage Eight: 1822
- Widow's Walk
- Voyage Nine: 1832
- The Slave-Breaker
- Voyage Ten: 1837
- The Railroad
- Voyage Eleven: 1886
- The Watermen
- Voyage Twelve: 1938
- Ordeal by Fire
- Voyage Thirteen: 1976
- Voyage Fourteen: 1978
Themes and motifs
The novel has a number of central themes, such as religion, slavery, poverty, and industry, each personified by a particular family that settles on the bay, and in some cases, by several families.
The religious element of the novel applies to the Steeds, who are Roman Catholic and the Paxmores who are Quakers. At one point there is a religious debate between Ralph Steed, a priest, and Ruth Brinton, a matriarch of the Paxmore family. Their disagreement is mainly about slavery.
Slavery is an overriding theme of the entire book. The Steeds are great landowners and one of the greatest holders of slaves in the colonies, whereas the Paxmores, through Ruth Brinton, are the first proponents of emancipation. It is said that the Choptank Quaker's Association is the first religious organization to ban slavery. Later in the book, Cudjo Cater is captured in Africa and put to work on the Steed plantation, where he buys his freedom and settles in the nearby township with a wife. The Cater family is forever affected by slavery, even after emancipation, as evidenced when Jeb Cater tries to get his son treated for an ear infection. Prior to the Civil War, the Paxmores form the Maryland link of the Underground Railroad to Pennsylvania, which Cudjo contemplates using before he buys his freedom.
Poverty is best shown in the living standards of the Turlocks, who live in a marsh on the riverside. While they are one of the closest families to nature throughout the whole novel, akin to most of the Indians, they live in the same one bedroom shack built in the 17th century, and the children often watch the adult's sexual activity. However, by the end of the book, at least some of the Turlocks have risen out of poverty. The head of the Turlock family in 1978 is a wealthy real estate broker, selling waterside properties to a well-heeled clientele; one of his customers is a returning member of the Steed family. The other side of poverty is the place in the township dubbed "The Neck" in the 20th century, where all the Negro housing is, including a separate school and baseball diamond. Living standards are greatly reduced in "The Neck", with the school teacher managing multiple years, and children counting themselves privileged to have either a book or a desk. "The Neck" is eventually burned down by black activists, one of them Jeb Cater's son.
Industry is seen in how each family builds their life up around them due to need, and eventually flourishes. It starts with Pentaquod, the Indian, who settles on a clifftop which is paradise to him. Edmund Steed settles on Devon Island and builds his home, complete with chapel, and founds his great plantation from the ground up with land bought from the Indians. The Steeds eventually own thousands of acres and are extremely wealthy. The Paxmores start with Edward Paxmore, a Quaker carpenter, being banished from Massachusetts and building his house on a cliff overlooking the Choptank. He learns how to build a boat because of necessity and with only help from Indians, and eventually learns how to build an oceangoing ship. His boat building business becomes highly successful and thrives in the township. The Caters struggle for a long time, until 'Big Jimbo' Cater becomes a cook for an oyster skipjack. He eventually earns enough money to buy his own skipjack, which he staffs with his family, and becomes a successful captain. The Caveneys, who emigrated from Ireland due to the Potato Famine, are easily assimilated into the town, and become central characters in the oyster and duck subplots. As can be seen from each family's success through determination, the message is that they worked hard and attained great things.
Allusions/references to actual history and geography
Most of the events of the novel take place on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and, more specifically, on and around the Choptank River. Devon Island is fictional; its location would be immediately north of Todds Point, approximately 3 miles southeast of the southern tip of Tilghman Island. Michener lived near there, in St. Michaels, while he worked on the book. The town of Patamoke lies on a fictitious promontory on the Choptank opposite Cambridge.
The Quaker Meeting House that Michener places in Patamoke in the novel, is actually Third Haven Meeting House, built in Easton in the 1680s; it is the oldest Quaker meeting house in the United States (see List of the oldest churches in the United States).
- Location of the fictional Devon Island on Google Maps
- "James Michener's Chesapeake". Retrieved 23 May 2011.
- Location of the fictional town of Patamoke on Google Maps