Not an Error to Depict Many an Era

A novel that spans a long period of time can be quite impressive and interesting. The author research required, the segueing from century to century, the awe that’s inspired in seeing the sweep of history, the mixed feelings about “civilization” encroaching on nature, etc.

One excellent example of this is a book I’m currently reading. Norah Lofts’ A Wayside Tavern begins in 384 AD with the story of a Roman soldier and a slave woman in Britain, and then chronologically proceeds nearly 1,600 years into the 20th century — all in 376 pages!

Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour takes many more pages (nearly 1,000) to tell the tale of four centuries of witches. That compelling novel’s timeline is not strictly linear — much of the book is set in the 1900s — but there’s plenty of back story spanning those aforementioned centuries.

Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue evocatively proceeds in reverse-chronological order — focusing on the ownership of a painting (possibly a Vermeer) from the 20th century back to the 1600s.

I’m not sure exactly what the time span is in Gabriel García Márquez’s iconic One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it seems like more than a century as it chronicles seven generations of the Buendía family.

Seven generations are also featured in Alex Haley’s semi-autobiographical novel Roots, which depressingly and dramatically goes from the slave trade of the 1700s into the 1900s.

Time-travel and science-fiction novels of course often span many a year, century, or millennium. For instance, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (image atop this blog post) moves from California in 1976 to a Maryland plantation in 1815, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand goes from the 1900s to the 14th century, and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court switches from the 1800s to the time of “Camelot.” H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine begins in the 19th century and brings its traveler first to 802,701 AD and then a mind-boggling 30 million years into the future to witness Earth dying. An author can’t span much more time than that!

Series and sequels obviously allow authors to potentially cover large swaths of time, but I’m focusing on individual books here.

Before ending this post, I did want to mention that there are some drawbacks to long time spans in fiction. For instance, readers aren’t able to enjoy a character for that many chapters before the author moves on to other characters. Meanwhile, we mourn the deaths of the previous characters — unless they’re villains, of course. 🙂

What are some of your favorite novels that cover many, many years?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which focuses on too much standardized testing and other topics — is here.

63 thoughts on “Not an Error to Depict Many an Era

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by Historical fictions, I can think of Hundred Years Of Solitude by Marquez! I am reading The Beautiful and Damned by Fitzgerald it seems to take three generations… can’t think of more!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Tanya! I’m also a big fan of historical novels — which often seem to be among the books with long time spans.

      “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is one heck of a memorable book. “The Beautiful and Damned” is the only Fitzgerald novel I haven’t read — yet. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve just started reading it, it’s free on I-phone , you can get it too, if you read on iPad or mobile! One Hundred Years Of Solitude is a classic but also very tough to read esp the recurring names, found it very difficult to read. No doubt Marquez got Nobel Prize for it, his acceptance speech is worth reading!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have read “Orlando”– about 40 years ago, and since I can barely remember anything in it beyond a miraculous change of sex and the scene on the frozen Thames– I guess it didn’t properly ‘take’.

    I have likewise read, and sadly, remember much more of Ann Rice’s earlier vampire books. Parts are better than other parts.

    “She”, by H. Rider Haggard features a queen who has lived and ruled from the days of ancient Egypt to her end in the Victorian era– my entry for the strongest female character in fiction, literally.

    What these books have in common: long-lived, or practically immortal main characters, thus obviating a frustrating characteristic of more realistic works spanning many years– folks keep dying one way or another, and new folks from later generations become the focus. Too many, too fast.

    I have enjoyed works that depict the endurance of objects, most often necessitating a bit of the ol’ anthropomorphism, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Bottle Neck” and “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years” by Rachel Field, concerning a bottle and a doll, respectively– but these I read as a boy, and have not returned to them since. “The Red Violin”, movie, I saw and enjoyed within the last decade, and thought the instrument, given its quality and its rarity, a worthy subject for a more adult working of the theme.

    MR James, scholar and antiquarian, wrote ghost stories that often revolve around ancient menace bound up, so to speak, among old volumes and prints and in artifacts, which reveal themselves upon disturbance by inquiring minds. Occasionally, readers are given the back-story of these things, spanning centuries. Not sure if these stories exactly fit the category under discussion…

    Fiction that traces the doings of a generation or two can be first-rate:
    IB Singer’s “The Family Moskat”, Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” and William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” spring to mind.

    But I can’t reason out why I haven’t stumbled on more books of this type to love. Seems like they would be right up my alley. Perhaps getting the historical details right over several generations is difficult, but I suspect the difficulty is most often that authors get so bound up on research that other aspects of the job at hand receive too little attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY!

      Great point — an immortal or at least VERY long-lived protagonist can remove the drawback of characters constantly/depressingly dying off in novels with long time spans. Another example of that would be Pete Hamill’s “Forever.”

      Another great point by you: “Perhaps getting the historical details right over several generations is difficult.” Many authors would rather churn out more novels than spend so much research time on one particular book, and I don’t blame them. 🙂

      I appreciate your mentions of various novels and stories. I would definitely like to read “She” one of these days, and “The Bottle Neck” is an incredibly poignant story.

      And, yes, many novels focus on a generation or two or three. The ones you mentioned, as well as John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” etc., etc.

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  3. Actually, I guess Anne Rice fits this category in more ways than one. I wasn’t the biggest fan of “The Witching Hour”, but I LOVED “Interview with the Vampire”. Thanks to Louis’ immortality, the novel easily spans 200 years. Future books add to the timeline quite significantly, but that initial 200 year long story is put together quite beautifully.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue! “The Witching Hour” is the only Anne Rice novel I’ve read, so I can’t compare it to her other work, including “Interview with the Vampire.” “The Witching Hour” did drag in spots, but overall I thought it was compelling. Sounds like Anne Rice does long time spans often. 🙂

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      • “The Witching Hour”‘s best moments, for me, involved descriptions of old Garden District plantings, a subject which the author, I felt, knew up to her elbows, being a local resident. Likewise, the best part of “Interview With the Vampire” was the death of Claudia, the young girl vampire. I have read somewhere that Rice drew on the death of her own child for inspiration.

        “that initial 200 year long story is put together quite beautifully.”

        Though I wish I could, I cannot agree with Sue At Work because I think the weakest aspect of IWTV is its structure, which groans and bends under its narrative responsibilities– but it’s mercifully short, and for its time (1976) an innovative piece of horror fiction. Success did not improve the author as an author, though it did add volume to her subsequent works, but as the unintentional founder of a marketing category for books, she cannot be ignored, and is very likely to be as good at writing as those who have profited in her wake, or better.

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        • I don’t mind being disagreed with 🙂

          I was only about 15 or 16 when I first read “Interview” and I was completely absorbed by it. I didn’t know if I was more heartbroken by the human version of Louis, or the vampire version, but I know it was always jarring when Rice reminded us that the story Louis was telling us was a flashback. The jumping between the past and present lent it an authenticity that I got swept up in.

          But I was young. I’ve read a lot of really good things since then, and maybe my expectations would be higher if I read it now for the first time. But I have reread it as an adult, and enjoyed it just as much.

          I completely agree with New Orleans being the best part of “The Witching Hour”.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. 2nd attempt: As far as “The Last Anniversary” one of the things I loved about it was how the matriarch of the family who lived on a quite small island orchestrated everything that happened (though we never met her in person (I think!). I don’t want to get morbid or anything, because I plan on living for a long time, and I certainly don’t want much money to be used on my “celebration of life,” as people use it these days, which is I think quite sensible. This is what we did with my parents who wanted to be cremated together. We had to wait an extra two plus years in order for my siblings and me to have my mother’s ashes added to my dad’s urn. It was a beautiful carved wooden urn my mother chose for my dad, but we took it to the funeral home my mom’s ashes were, and the funeral director came back out and said “I’m sorry, but there is no room for mom in here.” We all (my sisters and I) burst out laughing. Then that summer we got together on a northern lake in Minnesota where my parents spent their honeymoon, with my siblings and their spouses. We rented a cabin on the lake, along with a pontoon boat where we found a secluded bay to leave their ashes in. It was very special, and I will never forget. There was a bald eagle who flew over the minute I put the ashes in the water. So I guess you’d now know how special lakes and woods are to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kat Lit, that’s a very moving/poignant remembrance of what you and your extended family did with your parents’ ashes, and of the eagle’s appearance. Thank you for sharing that.

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  5. Oh, oh! “Cloud Atlas”. David Mitchell’s fabulous novel isn’t linear, so maybe it’s kind of cheating, but it spans a lot of time periods. It starts in the 1850s and then travels to 1931 and 1975. Then there’s a really fun part which I guess is set in the present, which at the time was early 2000s. Then it jumps forward to the future, though I can’t remember exactly when, and after that is the really distant future where time seems to have lost all meaning.

    It’s a strange novel, but I highly recommend it to anyone who likes things a bit left of centre 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue! Novels — like the complex/ambitious “Cloud Atlas” — that span a lot of time non-linearly definitely qualify! Really enjoyed your description of David Mitchell’s book.

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  6. Hi Dave,

    Colleen McCullough’s “The Thorn Birds” spans a few years, and a couple of generations. Sadly though, I wouldn’t say I loved it. I quite liked the beginning, and one of the main characters was a lot of fun, but by the time she’s grown up and having her own kids, I’d kind of lost interest.

    Same goes for Henry Handel Richardson’s “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony”. The history of this one is kind of cool though as it starts in the Goldfields of western Victoria, but ends up in the hustle and bustle of twentieth century Melbourne.

    Trying to think of books this week, I realise I’m not really a fan of books that take too long. I certainly didn’t love “One Hundred Years of Solitude” that felt like it spanned even more time than “The Time Machine”. The book I’m currently reading (“Power Without Glory’) is doing the same thing. Time is dragging on, but nothing seems to be happening. I personally would prefer to spend a short time with characters that I love, rather than years and years with people that I just don’t care about.

    Having said that, there are some great series out there with terrific characters that I didn’t ever want to end, but that’s a topic for a different day…

    Apologies for the negativity of this comment, Dave. I just can’t think of any books like this that I’ve loved. Hopefully somebody else will mention one or two that I’ve forgotten about

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sue! Thank you for mentioning several novels that span a lot of time. Totally okay to have negative or mixed feelings about books that do that. I’m still reading “A Wayside Tavern” — which spurred this week’s column — and, while it’s very well-written and very well-researched, it’s a jolt to repeatedly move on to new characters after I get absorbed with the personalities and doings of the previous characters. Of course there’s also the problem you mention — if we spend a lot of time with the SAME characters in novels that span many years, it’s not great in the cases where we get bored with those characters.

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    • Thank you, Quest Quilts! “Beloved” is a complex/sad/moving/memorable/exquisitely written novel. Great that you taught it!

      And I agree about “Kindred” — a stunning novel by a terrific author. I also like Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.”

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My Aunt always spoke highly of Jack Finney’s time travel books like “Time And Again.” although I haven’t read. E.L. Doctrow’s “Ragtime” took place early part of 20th century but was unique in incorporating historical fiction with fiction which made novel highly expansive in depth and breadth. Historical figures like Harry Houdini and trail of famed architect Stanford White are brought to life in a complex book that feels like its spanning centuries as has contemporary flavors with the past layers that linger to present day reflection.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Michele! I HIGHLY recommend “Time and Again.” Interesting time travel from around 1970 to 1880s NYC, wonderful photos of the city back then, a nice love story, and some mystery elements.

      I agree — “Ragtime” is also an excellent novel. Great description by you!

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    • Thank you, Neil! A great question about novels that span only a day. Two that come to mind are Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and of course Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Then there’s Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novel “61 Hours,” which unexpectedly ( 🙂 ) spans just over two-and-a-half days…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Spoiler alert! Now it’s ruined for me that I know it only lasts 2.5 days. I never would have got that knowledge anywhere else 😉

        Dave, have you written a blog about books that don’t last very long? It might be a fun topic if you haven’t already done it?

        Liked by 1 person

        • LOL, Sue! 🙂

          I haven’t written a blog post about novels that span a very short amount of time (such as the books I mentioned in my reply to Neil). Yes, a possible future topic… 🙂

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  8. What comes to mind is the excellent novel, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, that tells the story of three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family. They end up in Detroit and that’s where the remarkable story of Calliope unfolds, revealing the family’s genetic secret that turns Callie into Cal. This novel educates within the context of a masterful storyline without being ‘preachy.’ Well deserved of The Pulitzer Prize.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Molly! A great/fascinating novel, and well-described by you. I agree that it deserved its Pulitzer, and that it’s educational amid the compelling/non-preachy story line.

      Another novel with a somewhat similar “intersex” theme is Abigail Tarttelin’s “Golden Boy.” Excellent, though not as good as “Middlesex.”

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for these reading suggestions, Dave! I do love a long epic. The first one that sprang to mind on this topic is “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf, which I really should reread some day.

    Another author who frequently writes novels set over a long period of a time is Amy Tan. Her books tend to be set over several generations. I can’t recommend them enough!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Elena! I think I need to finally read “Orlando,” which was also mentioned under a link to this blog post that I put on Facebook. The only Virginia Woolf novel I’ve read is the excellent “Mrs. Dalloway” (which, if I’m remembering correctly, spans only one day except for back story?). A bit embarrassing that I haven’t gotten to more of Woolf’s work.

      I was very impressed with the two Amy Tan novels I’ve read — “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife.” Will try a third book of hers when I can. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. 3rd attempt: I think that for once I’m totally stumped. However, I do have a film, if I may, to add to this column. There is a movie from 1998, “The Red Violin” that traces the ownership of a very unique and beautiful violin made in Cremona, Italy, in 1681 by a master violin maker. The red color of the instrument comes from the blood of his beloved wife who dies during childbirth and his unborn son. Then it travels to Vienna, Austria in the late 1700’s and then to Oxford in the late 1800’s. It winds up in Shanghai in the 1960’s (why I don’t actually recall), but it is finally is sent to auction in Toronto in 1997 and is bought (by Samuel L. Jackson, which struck me as somewhat odd). What I loved so much from the film was the soundtrack, I think it was played mostly by my favorite violinist, Joshua Bell. So sorry for that musical sequence, but I think that screenplays and playwrights can often be considered as literature. Isn’t that what Shakespeare was all about, as well as others such as Virgil, Homer, Aristophanes, etc.?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Sorry about the need for three attempts. 😦

      Film mentions are welcome! And, yes, literature doesn’t have to be novels and short stores only. 🙂

      “The Red Violin” movie has a great premise! You described that film very well. Reminds me of the “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” novel I mentioned in my post. The object is basically the star as it’s owned by many different people over many years.

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      • I think there was another film about “The Yellow Rolls Royce.” of the same premise, but not nearly as spanning centuries and such as “The Red Violin.” did.. Liane Morarity’s novel “The Last Anniversary.” did cover what this anniversary was about, and why it was considered a classic as such, over many years. So I think I’ll hop off for now until I can come up with something new or germane to this conversation 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve heard of “The Yellow Rolls Royce”! Definitely another example of that mini-genre.

          As for the fabulous writer Liane Moriarty, “The Last Anniversary” is one of her novels I still need to read. I’ve read four of her books, and that’s not nearly enough. 🙂

          You’ve already contributed plenty of interesting stuff to this conversation, but I’ll of course look forward to more if you come up with additional thoughts!

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    • Kat Lib, given your interest in this movie, you might enjoy the book “Accordion Crimes” by Annie Proulx. It’s a very similar concept to this, and a book I was going to mention for this post, Dave, since you mentioned “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” 🙂 “Accordion Crimes” follows a hand-made accordion from the time it was made (1800s) through over a century of time as it changes owners and circumstances. It was a very good read – and it’s always an interesting concept to have an object as the “main character.” If you do read it, I hope you enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

        • I really do recommend it! It was another of those situations where I was looking for a different book by the same author, but it was checked out so I got this one instead. It was a happy coincidence! Because I enjoyed this book very much.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Accordion Crimes, eh? Reminds me of a joke:

          What do a long court hearing and a bad accordionist have in common? There is always a huge sigh of relief when the case is closed.

          Bonus joke:
          What’s the difference between an onion and an accordion?. Nobody cries when you chop up an accordion.

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            • Bonus bonus joke: The definition of a gentleman: Someone who knows how to play the accordion, and doesn’t.

              Which reminds me of something attributed to US Grant: “I only know 2 tunes. One is ‘Yankee Doodle’ and the other isn’t.”

              Liked by 1 person

                  • I am, I’d like you to know, not so unfond of the accordion in any context as these jokes, which I admit I like, might indicate. Cajun music, Norteno (a squiggle, which i do not know how to get at on my keyboard, belongs above that second ‘n’) music– the accordion is central and delightful. And probably became a part of each genre through the efforts of German salesmen working tirelessly from New Orleans and down into northern Mexico in the latter half of the 19th century, when accordions were first manufactured– mostly in Germany– and made in quantity.

                    Another type, the button accordion, popular among lonesome sailors of yore, lends its oddly intimate tones to whaling songs, sea chanties, etc.

                    I could add tango, and French popular songs from the early part of the last century. I could, but, here I confess, I cannot– de gustibus, etc.

                    I have an overfondness for musician jokes generally, so I’ll leave you with another or two:

                    Definition of an optimist: a trombonist with a beeper.

                    Want to know to get a guitarist to turn down? Put a written arrangement in front of him.

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        • Oh dear, I think I’ve got a real problem with WordPress! They can’t seem to decide if I’m Kat Lib, or Kat Lit; in fact, they don’t seem to recognize whether I’m someone that they know me at all! Dave, can you please delete the above comment while I ponder what to do with my account? I’m going to see if I can resurrect the comment I tried to post a few minutes ago, which didn’t work at all!

          Liked by 1 person

  11. Dave: Stanley Elkin’s amazing novel “George Mills” takes readers generation by generation through the Mills family starting with the Crusades and ending (or nearly so) with the latest George Mills dying in bed with a piece of Meals-on-Wheels pie in his mouth. Terrific scene. Breathtaking timeline. Also, don’t forget “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter M. Miller Jr., about Brother Francis, a novice at Leibowitz Abbey some 600 years after the civilized (ha) world is destroyed by nuclear war — years that in some ways get relived and retold in the novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bill! Two great examples of long-time-span novels!

      I looked for “A Canticle for Leibowitz” at my local library a month or two ago. Not there then, but will check again. 🙂

      And “George Mills” sounds amazing! Excellent summary/description!

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  12. Michener’s novels (at least the ones that I have read) span vast periods of time. “The Source” is a historical novel that describes the history of the Jewish people from ancient times until the creation of modern Israel. “Centennial” begins with prehistoric beavers on the Platte River and progresses to modern times. “Chesapeake” starts with a long ago flood of the Chesapeake Bay area, continues with indigenous people of the region and their treatment of early explorers, etc. His novels are amazing in scope!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, lulabelle! One of these days I have to read an epic Michener novel or two (I’ve only read a couple of his shorter ones); the three examples you mentioned do sound mind-boggling in scope and time span!

      Liked by 1 person

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