SAVANNAH: Or A GIFT FOR MR. LINCOLN, by John Jakes, is a departure from the usual historical fiction novel for which he is known. Those who have read the Kent Family Chronicles or the North and South trilogy will find that SAVANNAH has a different feel to it. It is a short novel and takes place in only a span of a few months, whereas many of his novels tend to span years. His books are typically epic in size, but SAVANNAH is only a few hundred pages long. The characters are fewer, and the writing is far simpler than his average book. It is in part a holiday novel, about a group of people in Civil War-torn Savannah getting ready for the coming of Christmas, despite the ravages of war that is felt by all.
The story takes place between Thanksgiving 1864 and mid-January 1865, and it encompasses the fall of Atlanta (which occurs earlier in September of that same year) and Savannah. The subtitle, A GIFT FOR MR. LINCOLN, is in reference to the famous telegraph sent by General William T. Sherman on December 21, 1864, announcing that Savannah had been captured by the North and was being offered to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift.
What is most important in SAVANNAH are not the battles or the soldiers who fought them. It is mostly about the spirit of the South, in particular, the town of Savannah. It is about the people who had survived the Civil War and were now dealing with keeping spirits bright during the relatively new holiday celebrated on the 25th of December.
The central character in this novel, Harriet Lester, is a twelve-year-old Southerner who is an atypical female: a headstrong and hot-tempered individual who will not hold back, even with strangers, if she is angry about something. Her mother Sara tries to teach Harriet right from wrong, but deep down she is proud of her daughter, who is independent of thought and will not let others push her around. On most occasions, Harriet's pet pig, Amanda, who is often starving, accompanies her. There is not enough food to feed Harriet and her mother, and Amanda is lucky to get the scraps she eats.
Harriet's best friend is a fourteen-year-old boy, Legrand Parmenter, and early on in the story he goes off to war, as it is his duty. He is considered old enough to fight for Dixie and promises he will return. In the meantime, Harriet and her mother try to make it on their own. They live on a farm, but are slowly losing their crops, as they are unable to take care of their land. Harriet's father died right before he went into battle, and now the two are left to fend for themselves.
Sara's sister-in-law, "Lulu" Ladson, and her husband, the Judge Cincinnatus Drewgood, come to visit, on the pretense of checking in on the two women in case they need any help. The judge's ultimate goal is to steal the land from his sister-in-law, knowing that Sara will not be able to keep up the farm with only herself and Harriet to tend to it.
Besides fictional characters, Jakes also includes persons from the history books, as he typically does in his novels. Jefferson Columbus Davis is featured, as well as William T. Sherman, who stands out here as he befriends Harriet.
As the war goes on, Harriet, her mother and friends try to make it a happy Christmas. They create toys with whatever materials they can find. In the meantime, they deal with crooked soldiers, mostly Union, who are scavenging people's homes and terrorizing those who are still in the city. Jakes does not hold back and lets the reader know that, although the Union soldiers were there to fight for the country, some treated the Southerners as criminals and the newly freed Negroes even worse. While Lincoln proclaimed the slaves free, both Northerners and Southerners had opposing opinions on this subject. It was a time of change in the country, and most citizens were not ready for it.
Overall, SAVANNAH was a pleasant read but very frustrating, as it is not one of Jakes's best novels.
John Jakes is one of the best writers of historical fiction, and newcomers are recommended to find a copy of any book in the Kent Family Chronicles, which better represents the body of his work.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton on January 23, 2011