By James Michener
In northeastern Colorado sits the small town of Centennial, a place with a long and varied history that extends back even further than human memory. Many of the features that make this town unique and lovely began with the formation of the Earth itself, from the geologic eras that saw the beginning of the great Rocky Mountains to the time of the dinosaurs that later astounded the world. As human life evolved, the area around Centennial gained new meaning. Beginning with the American Indian tribes that depended on the land and its seasonal resources, Centennial develops a sense of tradition, value, and importance that escapes words. Although these dynamics change with the American migration West, supported largely by European investors, the dedication to the land remains. Those claiming to be local to the area know the vivid history of Centennial’s forebears, from the fur traders who took great risks during solo explorations, to pioneers awed and confused by the spaciousness of the open prairies, to the ranchers and farmers who turned that spaciousness into profit, often with the help of Chicano farm workers. One must know the history of the land in order to live on the land, as those loyal residents of Centennial have learned.
“Centennial” by James Michener is the based-in-truth, fictionalized history of the land where Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming border, primarily focusing on northeastern Colorado. Renowned for his elaborate descriptions and attention to detail, Michener follows the same pattern, in spades, with “Centennial.” His story spans millennia, starting with the formation of the Earth and continuing up to the time the book was published. Despite the lengthy timeline, hardly a moment seems to drag by because his rich descriptions make every part of history vivid and intriguing. His cast of characters shows both the continuity and cohesion of the story, while also demonstrating evolution over time. From beginning to end, the characters have some connection to each other (usually through lineage), and yet each new generation of characters carries the story forward as the way of life changes. The cumulative effect of this continuity builds a fierce pride, both in the characters and the reader. Michener describes in loving detail all the nuances of the land, giving equal attention to both the grandeur and desolation of the area, sparing no detail about the majesty and devastation of the land and the people living on it. The reader can’t help but be swept up by it.
As a native Coloradan, I of course loved Centennial. I felt many of the same sentiments as the characters in the story, and developed a greater sense of love and pride for my home state (which I didn’t think was possible). I did feel there were a few moments in the story that lagged, but what was harder were the parts of the book that were absolutely heartbreaking (see above note on devastation and desolation). Amazing, beautifully crafted, and thoughtfully told. All 1,086 pages are worth reading, though it may take some time.