The story that will draw readers into the book concerns David Chase, a young writer hired by an enemy of Andrew Jackson to research and write a scurrilous biography of him that will derail his presidential bid. Fortunately for Chase, there is plenty of scandal to be found. Jackson lived a life on the frontier, where duels were as common as breathing, and where those with a lick of sense and an ounce of ambition -- and Jackson had more than enough of both -- were not above using any means to get ahead.
But it's Rachel, Jackson wife of 38 years, who had the potential of providing the juiciest bits of gossip. Although we first meet her as a pious, elderly woman, content to smoke her corncob pipe on the veranda of their home, the Hermitage, she was considered a vivacious beauty in her youth, when Andrew eloped with her to escape an abusive marriage. They were married, and lived together for two years before discovering that her first husband neglected to file divorce papers. Bigamy, no matter how accidental nor how long ago, was still a powerful charge in 1828.
Worse, rumors are about that Rachel that she was involved with another man while still married to her first husband. If Chase can find proof, he could set alight the charge that would dynamite Jackson's campaign.
The second, more subtle, story has to do with America of the 1820s, making its way from being a stepchild of Great Britain to something reflecting its native character, an uneasy mix of sectional rivalries and class distinctions that can still be seen today. Chase observes this growing-up process with the eye of a Parisian, where he lived for many years and desperately wants to return. He is at times horrified by this country under construction, its rough ways and abusive life. Byrd expertly recreates this America in vivid prose mingled with deeply dug-up facts about everyday life in this newly minted country. We are rewarded, for example, with a glimpse of John Quincy Adams, the president and Jackson's rival, uneasily presiding at a White House reception, open to all, and jammed with politicians, diplomats and what passed for tourists in those days, all on the make. He fared better than Jackson, whose inaugural parade degenerated into an all-out assault and looting of the White House by the "common people" who voted him in.
Chase also experiences this shaping of America personally in a love affair with Emma Colder, a woman who finds the invisible ties that bind her sex loosened in her new land.
As a historical novel, "Jackson" doesn't rip through its time like freight train. Popular novelists like John Jakes would have juiced up the love story, made the hero handsomer and put in a few fist fights and gun battles (although Byrd's recounting of the Battle of New Orleans provides enough gore on that score). Byrd paces his story more leisurely, the way life was lived back then. He convincingly revives an era when optimism about America's future was mingled with pessimism over its past, when technology was embraced like a religion, and when social inequalities were blatant and considered justified. It makes one anxiously await his next book, just published, about Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain.
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