James A. Michener’s “Centennial”


“Only the rocks live forever, Gray Wolf said.”
― James A. Michener, Centennial

I have three passions in my life that were sparked in childhood.

The love of the outdoors is an obvious one as much of my free time is spent outdoors (or writing about it).

Food and cooking is something that is a  bedrock of my cultural upbringing. The food, the ritual, the sharing…all aspects that echo well into my adulthood.

There is one other passion of mine that occasionally overlaps with my other two: history.

Not just the dry recitation of facts: The “Who did what and when” lessons many of us were subjected to in school. But rather the “how and the why” of history.  Knowing the cause and reasons for many aspects of the past often help explain our present condition.

Knowing that the Ancestral Pueblo people lived in Chaco Canyon eight-hundred years ago is good. Knowing they left, more than likely, due to depleting the resources found in their rapidly changing environment is something applicable to our current situation in the American West.

And, with the right way of telling a story, history can be an intriguing and gripping tale. Where the people of the past aren’t just something to be read about in a text but are living, breathing people as complex, motivated and as full of contradictions as we are today.

In short, history told well makes the past seem muscular and vital and not dry and dusty.

And this is why I seem to enjoy historical fiction. When written well, the events and people may or may not have happened as portrayed…but the overall arcs and experiences are often true. And gives vitality and deep explanation to the place, people and culture that are depicted.

One of the more famous examples of this type of genre of literature is James A. Michener’s Centennial. 

As with most Michener novels, Centennial takes place in a real area (the High Plains of northeastern Colorado, the river valley of the Platte and the other regions) and uses real places, historical events and people in a fictionalized way (e.g., the Pawnee Buttes are called the “Rattlesnake Buttes” in the novel, there is a fictionalized version of the Sand Creek Massacre, and such well know Colorado figures as Ceran St. Vrain has fictionalized counterparts in the novel).

When I was a new Colorado resident, I was told I should read the book.

The far past of where I chose to call my new home was brought alive,  the “mountain men” and their stomping grounds were very close by and an area I never thought of as remote and beautiful became intriguing.

Reading the novel was an impetus to exploring areas in my adopted home over the years. I’ve explored the trading fort sites, and reproductions mentioned in the book delved into the Dust Bowl history of Colorado and have grown to appreciate the areas to the east of where I live.

Written in the 1970s, at a particularly active period of the conservation movement, a theme in the book is especially resonant today: How to use resources in a sustainable manner that will not destroy the area in the process?

When this balance is not struck, such as the dry land farming and the Dust Bowl chapters of the book, some particularly harrowing scenes are depicted.

Nearly forty years after the novel was published, seems the same debate is being discussed. With the outcomes perhaps less optimistic than during the 1970s…

In addition to the novel, the Centennial mini-series is probably worth watching as well. Often filmed on location in northeast Colorado, the scenery adds some richness to the story itself.

Some filming areas have not changed in the forty years since the filming. Others have changed rather remarkably. 

At twenty-six hours in length, and costing $25m dollars (or about $96m in 2014 dollars), the mini-series is not far removed from the modern “prestige” series found on HBO, Amazon or Netflix.

The series is currently available on DVD. All twelve episodes are available for streaming on YouTube.

Centennial, both the novel and the series, in the end, has one central message: The land will endure…but will the people on the land endure with it?

To understand a large part of the Colorado experience, Centennial is well worth reading.

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5 years ago

conservation movement not conversation