I just returned from a wonderful road trip from Colorado to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, traveling through WY, UT, ID, and OR along the way. Enroute we listened to most of Centennial, by James Michener, having started it on a road trip in May. It did take two road trips because it's a long book, over a 1000 pages in the mass market paperback version I have on my shelf.
It was first published in 1974, anticipating the 100th anniversary of Colorado's statehood and the 200th anniversary of the USA's nationhood in 1976. It is dated, with some quaint bits explaining how cassette players work in cars and the use of the term Chicano, which I haven't really heard much in about 20 years.
Centennial is a framed story, which I wasn't expecting. The idea is that the first-person narrator is a historian, hired by a magazine to vet the research done by its staff on an article series on the Platte River, and its role in the shaping of Colorado. The historian visits the fictional town of Centennial, which was located north of Greeley and east of Fort Collins, on the Colorado prairie, and sends back chapters that tell the story of Centennial, in his own words and based on his own research. It's a cute premise, and one that reflects what I know about how Michener set about writing his own massive novels--a team of researchers who put together the material that he drew from to create his own narrative.
As with most Michener works, Centennial begins with the formation of the earth and we get stories about the dinosaurs, prehistoric horses, bison, beavers, snakes, and eagles, all before Michener gets around to the human inhabitants of the land we know as Colorado. Then, he describes the various tribes of Native Americans, focusing in on "Our People," the Arapaho, who lived in the part of Colorado where I live. I loved hearing about Lame Beaver and his wife Blue Leaf and their daughter, Clay Basket, who married the two trappers who ventured into Arapaho lands to hunt and trade. As a native Coloradan, I know the geography well that Michener describes, even though he changed many place names.
The rest of the story, from the trapper days to the present, was structured around real events and real people that Michener renamed and reformed to suit his story arcs. For example, he moved the Sand Creek Massacre from southern Colorado to the northeastern plains. Once I stopped protesting and accepted the fact that Centennial was pure fiction inspired by history, I enjoyed it. My favorite character was Ellie Zendt, Levi's first wife, followed closely by Charlotte Lloyd, the British heiress who fell in love with the Colorado prairie and found Bristol boring by comparison!
Believe it or not, I've never actually watched all of the TV series (one of the first mini-series to come out), so I will be embarking on that project tonight. But taking it slowly. I know that the production values are as dated as Michener's narrative, but it is a veritable cast of 1970's stars, which should be loads of fun to see again).