A Saga Reborn: The Savannah Quartet Gets a Well-Deserved Update
It’s my belief that historical fiction attracts, perhaps more than any other genre except fantasy, the kind of reader who will willingly devote weeks or even months to reading a sprawling, multi-generational saga. You know the type: the books are two inches thick, and they still have to make the font really small to pack the story into the space. Despite all the agent advice I’ve read about keeping the writing tight and not overwhelming the reader with research or descriptive detail, I can’t help noticing that two runaway successes of recent years are the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin (known on TV as A Game of Thrones) and the Outlander series by HNS member Diana Gabaldon, now also in production for TV. Both series, while not lacking in action, are heavy on descriptive detail and take time world-building and developing characters, attracting legions of passionate fans.
I’ve also noticed that sagas captivate a large fan base on reader sites such as Goodreads and Historical Fiction Online. There seems to be a brisk market in collecting chunky historical romance novels from the ’80s and ’90s with their vividly drawn covers and, preferably, stepback interior covers, which makes me wonder if the decision to replace those marvelous illustrations with bare-chested male models was a good one. Despite the overall trend toward shorter books, it seems that the sprawling tragedy-and-romance epic is still firmly with us.
So when I was offered the chance to review a 2013 re-issue of the Savannah Quartet by Eugenia Price, my interest was piqued. Price, who passed away in 1996, already had a successful career in radio and nonfiction writing when, in 1961, she and fellow writer Joyce Blackburn decided to take a few hours out of a business trip to visit St. Simons Island on the Georgia coast. This led not only to a lifelong attachment to St. Simons Island (Price and Blackburn moved there from Chicago in 1965), but to Price’s decision to branch out into a new kind of writing: novels dramatizing the lives of ordinary people living on the fringes of unfolding American history. We take this manner of blending historical biography and fictional romance for granted these days, but it was groundbreaking in the 1970s, and Price’s popularity soared.
The Savannah Quartet was originally published between 1977 and 1987. It inserted a fictional character—Mark Browning, arriving in Savannah from Philadelphia in 1812, on the eve of the war between Britain and the young United States of America—into the life of the real Savannah family of Robert and Eliza Mackay. Price discovered the Mackays while researching an earlier series, and their connections with Robert E. Lee and lesser-known Southern politician W.H. Stiles provided an excellent framework for carrying the Browning-Mackay story into the Civil War, and illustrating the divisions that the conflict produced within even the closest-knit families.
Broadly speaking, the first two books in the series, Savannah and To See Your Face Again, laid more emphasis on the fictional romances of the Browning family, while the third and fourth books, Before The Darkness Falls and Stranger in Savannah, had a stronger historical emphasis and were more concerned with the Mackay and Stiles families. This does not mean that there was a marked change of style halfway through the series, though; Price’s skill at weaving historical events into her narrative was clear from the outset, and I found this to be one of those rare series that could satisfy two types of reader—those looking for romance and those who wish to learn more about the antebellum South.
There is a strong thread of Christian faith in the novels, but the inclusion of spiritual matters does not preclude a degree of sensuality that might surprise readers accustomed to today’s inspirational format. Price was not, I suspect, a writer who was willing to be pinned down to any predictable model of fiction. In the Savannah Quartet she met controversial issues head on, not pulling back from having her characters express the views and prejudices of their time in the language they would have used, and dealing with matters such as the removal of the Cherokees from the Georgia upcountry and with the more obvious issues of slavery and states’ rights, on which her characters were divided in a realistically nuanced way. Set against these wider brushstrokes were the challenges and tragedies typical of nineteenth-century life: the dangers of travel, the ever-present specter of sudden illness and death in those pre-antibiotic days, the risks posed to women by childbirth, and the too-frequent deaths of babies and young children.
This mixture of romance and tragedy, history and fiction adds up to a compelling read, and I found myself absorbed in the family story while learning a great deal about the events that led to the Civil War. The books have their weaknesses—Price’s habit of laboring a plot point by having first one, then another, and sometimes a third set of characters discuss it after the fact added unnecessary length, and I found it hard to warm to some of the characters. The central figure, Mark Browning, seemed to me to become increasingly weak as the books progressed, relegated to the role of an onlooker and beset by a tendency to worry about everything. Some characters, such as the fictional Miss Lorah and the real Eliza Mackay, seemed to have little to do in the story other than to supply wisdom, and I waited in vain for Natalie to ever grow out of her childish self-centeredness.
Still, I found two of the fictional romances highly satisfying (with the third less so). The standout romance was the bittersweet tale based on real-life events in the fourth book, seeming as it did to highlight the sadness of seeing the lives of characters I had stuck with for fictional decades being torn apart in that volume. I don’t doubt that many of Price’s fans wished there had been a fifth Savannah book, as I certainly felt there was more to be told about the Brownings and Mackays.
The re-issue is attractively presented, both inside and out, although I am sorry to have to report persistent quality issues in the text, particularly in the third volume where my copy had missing paragraphs at the beginning of some chapters and an alarmingly high number of words evidently misread from the scanning process. I hope that the publisher will be able to correct these problems in later editions, but they will not deter me from seeking out other Eugenia Price series the next time I feel the need to lose myself in a good long saga. (Update, June 2014: per the publisher, the printing errors have been fixed.) A recommended reading experience for anyone who really likes to get swept up and away into a story.
Publication details for the quartet are as follows:
Eugenia Price, Turner, 2013, $17.95, pb, 588pp, 9781620455012
To See Your Face Again
Eugenia Price, Turner, 2013, $17.95, pb, 542pp, 9781620455029
Before the Darkness Falls
Eugenia Price, Turner, 2013, $17.95, pb, 563pp, 9781620455036
Stranger in Savannah
Eugenia Price, Turner, 2013, $17.95, pb, 718pp, 9781620455043
About the contributor: Jane Steen was born in England and has lived in three countries, but still manages to hang on to the English accent. She currently resides in the Chicago suburbs with her family, but visits the UK as often as possible. Jane is a self-published author of historical fiction, starting with The House of Closed Doors, the first in a series. She’s also a runner, a knitter and designer of lace shawls, and full-time executive assistant to a cognitively disabled daughter.