A Gritty History
So I’ve started reading A Moment in the Sun, by John Sayles — the third ‘big book’ on my list, and the first book on the list that’s technically under 1,000 pages (955, to be exact). I know, I know. I can hear your disillusioned and disgusted jeering now, but I will live with your disappointment.
I’m just shy of 200 pages through the novel so far, and I have to say it’s pretty incredible. This post may be a little premature — and may reveal more ignorance than insight — but A Moment in the Sun is developing into quite an incredible, and truly American, novel. It begins in 1897, just before the advent of the Spanish-American War, following a myriad of characters from all across North America (from the gold-crazy Alaskan Yukon to the pro-Confederate politics of Wilmington, North Carolina) to as far across the world as the Philippines (during the tense, transitionary period between Spanish and American occupations).
The two chief (and inseparably entwined) themes I see arising in the novel are America’s struggle in developing its national identity at the turn of the 20th Century, coupled with the unsettled, post-Civil War tension of race relations which (even still) plagues that identity. As broad as it is deep, and as contemporary as it is historical, A Moment in the Sun unapologetically delves into the gritty past of the United States which is often (and more easily) nostalgicized.
Honestly, I’ve never read a novel by a white author that so well represents the plight and perspectives of African Americans without slipping into either sermon or condescension. This may really bely my ignorance here, as it assumes that I fully understand the plight and perspectives of African Americans now (let alone in 1897), or that I’m a qualified judge of what a “good representation” of what would be. As I only have my own experience and observations, and however many novels I’ve read on the subject by African-American novelists, to compare it to, you can only take my opinion for what it’s worth. But I think Sayles does an impressive job, nonetheless.
Now I had never heard of John Sayles before discovering this book, and, frankly, my research on Wikipedia has left me no more enlightened (I’ve never heard of his three others novels and am unfamiliar with the majority of his film and television work). This is astonishing to me because of the high level of craft and storytelling exhibited in this novel. I’m seriously shocked that so little a deal has been made about this book since it’s publication in 2011, not to mention about John Sayles as an author in general (the possibility that this has more to do with my ignorance than Sayles’ ‘unpopularity’ notwithstanding). Even on his Wikipedia page, the novel is without a link.
With 700 or so pages left to read, I don’t have a good way to conclude this post. Suffice it to say that I (at this point) highly endorse this novel. It’s a worthy read, an engaging story with a cinematic quality, quick-moving but well-developed and full of exuberant, authentic characters and vibrant imagery.