THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD by Harry Turtledove
AMERICAN EMPIRE #2
DEL REY, July 2002
The United States's victory during the great war has not led to the utopia many had hoped for. A nazi-like movement has sprung up in the (truncated) Confederate States of America led by Jake Featherston. Featherston blames the south's defeat on the black uprising and seeks to make the south strong--and to repay the U.S. for its sins. Rebellion simmers in occupied Canada and Utah where disaffected Mormons continue to resist incorporation into the U.S. Meanwhile, the boom of the 1920s ends abruptly with the crash of 1929. Even the great alliance between Imperial Germany and the U.S. is stretched thin with both sides eying the other for advantage.
Author Harry Turtledove (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of novels by this author) delivers an intriguing alternate history novel with extremely close parallels to the actual history we experienced. When the U.S. lost the civil war (thanks largely to intervention by France and Britain), it joined the emerging imperial power of Germany. As a result, World War I ended with a victory for Germany and the U.S., but the results are largely identical. The defeated countries seek revenge, secretly arm, and train in foreign nation adventures (here a Mexican civil war replaces the historic Spanish civil war).
Turtledove's great strength as a writer is to select a group of characters who he follows through the novel and through the series. Some are killed and others added, but he gives the reader a sense of what it is like to be a defeated southerner, a Yankee elated by victory after decades of defeat, or a Canadian, occupied by Americans who care little about native traditions and are happy to dispense with niceties of the rule of law. A mix of historical and fictional characters, with the historical characters altered by the events of the story, adds to the interest and gives Turtledove's wry sense of humor an opportunity to flourish.
The fundamental story of THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD is that of Jake Featherston's rise to power in the South (paralleling Hitler's rise to power in Germany). The sections of the novel that concentrate on Featherston, and on the members of the Freedom (Nazi) Party in the defeated south, are the highlights of the novel. Unfortunately, too much of the page count is taken up developing strories that do not go anywhere in this novel and that involve people who don't promise to be very interesting in the future (so little Mary McGregor wants to be a terrorist like her father before her--who cares). Perhaps because of the large number of characters whom Turtledove follows, we seem to get introduced to them over and over again--learning repeatedly that Ann Colleton doesn't like blacks because she lost her brother in their rebellion, that McGregor hates Americans because they killed her terrorist father, and that Nellie Jacobs will keep the murder she committed to her grave and doesn't like sex.
This isn't among Turtledove's best alternative history novels, but it does deal with an important period. Setting the events of Germany and Europe in the U.S. and the south gives history an immediacy and lets us feel the appeal of the dictator in a way that is sometimes difficult when he addresses only foreign concerns and foreign fears. Although THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD was not my favorite Turtledove novel, I look forward to the next as the buildup to a new second world war begins.
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