Sunday, September 19, 2010

Review of "Yankee Doric" by George Makana Clark

In Yankee Doric, Burton Raffel has created a sweeping, multigenerational saga of the Binghams, a prosperous New York family. The narrative unfolds amid the historical, economic, political, and social upheaval of a nation on the verge of tearing itself apart. Though the cast is large, the characters are well-drawn and distinct; their lives intersect with great historical figures, yet it’s through the Binghams’ romances, tragedies, successes and failures that this pivotal and vibrant period in American history comes alive for the reader.

Though Yankee Doric is told through multiple perspectives, the story belongs to Jonathan Bingham; at heart, it is a Bildungsroman that follows his search for meaning and purpose in life. As a journalist, Jonathan witnesses key historical events, but it’s his role as a poet that allows him (and the reader) to make sense of these events and provide perspective.

A distinguished and widely respected translator and poet, Raffel has put his skills to good use as a novelist, interpreting a bygone era for a modern audience. The prose is utilitarian and devoid of frills, and yet it contains a simple elegance that reflects the novel’s setting and the aesthetics of these new Americans.

The novel’s panoramic settings are filled with rich images and vivid, evocative details. Especially memorable is Raffel’s portrait of New York City, the ever-changing, unsettled heart of the North, its docks crowded with ships, warehouses, cargo, and immigrants, a place of unbridled growth where buildings are slapped together, seemingly overnight, with many collapsing shortly thereafter.

Beneath the exuberance of Yankee Doric there is an undertone of inevitable catastrophe in the ever-present and growing threat of war. But if the novel closes with the devastating news of the first shots fired at Fort Sumter, it also hints at the nation that will emerge from the rubble, its people oriented westward, toward a new destiny.

In Yankee Doric, Burton has captured not only the historical detail of an era, but also its voice and spirit. Readers will be transported back to an America still struggling to forge its identity. It’s a continuing struggle, and many of the issues that dominate the antebellum world of Yankee Doric still resonate today.
[A recipient of an O. Henry Prize, George Makana Clark has published fiction in the Georgia Review, Glimmer Train, Transition, Tin House, Zoetrope, and elsewhere. He is the author of the novel, The Raw Man, and the short-story collection, The Small Bees’ Honey. He teaches fiction writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.]

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