"Heyday" by Kurt Andersen

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"Heyday" may not be the ultimate novel of 19th century America, but it's certainly worthy of consideration. This is a sweeping, epic book; it takes up certain prominent personalities and events from the time. The Mexican War, the Gold Rush, the health and medical fads of the time, the sweep of revolution in Europe in 1848.

Although the surviving couple, Ben and Polly, absorb and merit the lion's share of our sympathy, perhaps the most intriguing character is the doomed Duff Lucking. A deserter during the Mexican War, he left the army for humanitarian purposes. He ends keeping to his ideals, but committing a long series of crimes, murder and arson, according to his reading of his principles. A devout Catholic, he understands the similarities between the Gospels and the teachings of the Maidu, the Indian tribe he joins at the end of the book.

Against the large canvas of pioneering across America, the sweeping events take place. We have cameos by Charles Darwin, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, John C. Fremont - all at least tangentially involved in the unfolding story.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly. It's epic, and thought-provoking, personal in focus, and national in scale. Pick it up, take a deep breath, and plunge in!
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