Ms. Caldwell's "Dynasty of Death: Book One, Partners of Death`" Doubleday, 1938
Michael D. Fried, PhD
Where does the line between history and fiction lie? Historians don’t go to where sources can’t lead them, into the unrecorded realms of a person’s thoughts, senses, or speech. Fiction writers, though, can enter characters’ minds to determining effect. A family saga is a history. You might read it if the tale is gripping. Or if you think it informs us of that other time, and the nature of its human characters.
Dynasty of Death, in addition to those above attributes, also has us asking about the nature of Taylor Caldwell. There is no simple characterization of her as worshiping one conservative ideology, for example that there are strong and weak, and correspondingly those who command and thrive and those who should serve the former. She has characters who know they must deal with contradictions, in the world, and even in their own character. She forewarns us to keep our eye on Amy Dumphill right from the start as the epitomy of such a character, whose compellingly sweet nature attracts two warring brothers (no, two warring natures of man), of a family, neither easily typed, say, as Cain or Abel. Neither possessed of the freedom to resist his own nature.
What really is freedom, in our age or that, for which conservatives today howl, though they provide it no articulation? Caldwell is aware of the problem, relishing letting her characters struggle with it.
We might puzzle how Caldwell, here in her first published novel, became as many have said, the darling in the late '40s, of the John Birch society. I return to that later. Taylor Caldwell unleashes her pent up story-telling imagination with a lengthy saga, in a genre requiring we recognize the structure in a long list of characters with varying and memorable personalities and ambitions.
It requires great energy and talent to sustain such a saga of the here intertwined Barbour and Bouchard families. Alexis Kivi received eventual great acclaim – he died in 1872, well under 40 – for his Finnish saga "Seitsemän Veljästä" ("Seven Brothers.") Our US facsimile was the 1950s movie "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." Kivi told, in the first Finnish language novel, of the different aspects of the Finnish character, summarized in one family. He brought those immature brothers to take took their places as heads of families. That played as a metaphor for the maturation of the Finnish nation during the Romantic period in Europe. Long after his death, Kivi was as honored as any produced by that tiny nation, though he died wretchedly for the task of completing and publishing his masterpiece.
For the first 50 pages of "Dynasty ...," I repeatedly opened to the character lists and relations in the preface to get their command. Yet, Caldwell has distinguished them admirably while they are young. I found her seeds of their blooming personalities – weaknesses, predilections and a peek into the ties that would bind them later in their lives – intuitively germinating into their early adult behavior.
For many parents the blossoming skills and neotenous charms of our children are intriguing, full of promise. They could be so great, in exotic ways (First President of Mars), in commanding ways (Quarterback of a pro-team, Miss America or President of the National Academy of Sciences), and so commanding that all are in their thrall. Not all parents have such dreams. Even fewer consider under magnification their children's foibles, fears and freaky quirks.
Saga writers carefully consider their characters' personality spectrum. Caldwell has fleshed out her character details so that we naturally sense their roles in the growth and intertwining of these two families. She raises a dual column of ambition that plays out on the international scene, even as it adheres to small town life, writ large.
Kivi manufactured seven distinctive and memorable brothers. Caldwell peoples a family as rich, in ways, as those in Dickens, though without the eponymous character-driven names. Commonly, after such a tour-de-force, the author is exhausted, as was Kivi, never to produce like that again. We know that was not the case for Caldwell.
Ernest Barbour, the force irresistible, is neither a sociopath, nor even at the novel's outset, ruthless beyond measure. He honors his father Joseph as the inventor of a superior gunpowder. Joseph's brother George has invited Joseph's family to America and Joseph has brought his partner Jacques with Jacques' family.
By intertwining these three families, Caldwell acquaints us with the complications of all their personalities. She concludes with Ernest exposing George, and then forcing him out of the company, when he discovers George's exploitation of their father's invention. With this Caldwell establishes the relation of many of the members of the two families; and the will and cleverness of Ernest.
While few would, in this small town and in their right mind, want to mess with Ernest, it isn't a clean, mean evil with which they would be forced to deal. Just someone who thinks and acts beyond their ambitions. Yet, as Ernest meets the two most powerful people in the town – Gregory and Nicholas Sessions – those with the money and pull to fulfill his ambitions, Caldwell unfolds for us a very unusual love story when Gregory Sessions introduction of Ernest to his beloved niece, Amy Drumhill.
At first sight Amy noted a measure of Ernest, not immediately flattering, but quickly adjusted to a deeper insight on his stance, his demeanor, his confidence: "What a heroic face, but how lifeless!" she thought. Yet, on quicker glance, rather still and composed and rigid as carved stone.
Ernest in thought on Amy:
Not very pretty, according to convention ... yet ... of expression ... utterly charming.
Caldwell rarely predicts the future. Yet, here as author she says almost immediately, without giving away anything crucial to the story:
Amy Drumhill was the only living thing that Ernest Barbour ever really loved, ... but he didn't know for years how profoundly and completely he did love her.
As part of Ernest's rise to power, he has an epiphany. He has a family, many of whom love him, even as they fear him. Nicholas Sessions, the Senator, gives Ernest a path to power through munitions contracts. We have here one conservative dream, pulling levers from your own milieu, while from them emanate strings that control machinations of a nation seeking Manifest Destiny.
On his deathbed Joseph predicts that Ernest will destroy the family. Still, Caldwell does not unambiguously fulfill Joseph's predictions. Ernest marries Amy's cousin May, heir to the Sessions' wealth, and an intricate personality on her own. He treats May well. Still, many hope, May included, that Ernest will outgrow his love – ineffably returned, though subtly manifest by Caldwell – for Amy.
Caldwell has more than adequately done her historical research. She puts a window from the time on the history of the wars that arise in Book One: the Spanish wars in Mexico, the Crimean in Asia, and the Civil War. Rather than stretch our patience in this long book, she uses these to show us how Ernest's power through selling armaments (the proceeds of which he shares with his own and the siblings in the Bouchard family) grows beyond the awareness of those around him.
The clashes between family members during the Civil War play over Ernest's use of (essentially) forced labor from Europe. Health care for those workers plays the crucial place where those workers end up in public. Ernest uses them to run a company he has bought through legislation created by Senator Sessions. "Dynasty ..." is published in 1938. Yet we see in detail how some Bouchards and Barbours managed to cut out Americans from jobs intended for them, right in front of a good many of their own family.
During all this, the sinister growth of America's hunger for success at any cost shows Ernest riding these paths that open to him until he casts a mighty aura, even as he remains a version of what he started, a complicated, albeit consistent, character.
During all this the family is growing, creating a new generation, and becoming entangled in a bigger world, one we see in Books Two and Three, the subject of the next review. Throughout Book One, Caldwell was pityingly sympathetic to the pacifist brother, Martin. Yet, again in a conservative vein, for his blindness to the ways of men she has him succumb in that dark world stemming from the Civil War. The intertwining of the Barbour and Bouchard families becomes the Dynasty that Caldwell creates.
Having seen all this grow in front of him, in Gregory Session's last deed he reveals to Amy how he tried to save her from her love for Ernest. That involved his posing a deal with Ernest. A deal that cast Ernest as initially having rejected Amy.
There is a strange switch going into that next generation. Ernest is seeing the children of Amy and Martin, more as the children the two of them should have had together. Further, he is rejecting some of his children with May. May is not defenseless. Her stand for her son Godfrey leads into the complication of the unfolding of a new generation.
The Barbour family is from England, some coming at an age that Taylor Caldwell might have come from England. In Books Two and Three, we might compare her care with traversing her literary generations, with her concerns for what bound her to her own children and grandchildren.
Michael D. Fried, PhD - Descendant of Taylor Caldwell, 11/23/16