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Reading Group Guide

A Gift for Mr. Lincoln
John Jakes

About the Book

The author of sixteen consecutive New York Times bestsellers, called by the Los Angeles Times "the godfather of the historical novel," now brings to life an almost-forgotten moment in the Civil War.

Georgia, 1864: Sherman's army marches inexorably from Atlanta to the sea. In its path, the charming old city of Savannah, where the Lester ladies -- attractive widowed Sara and her feisty twelve-year-old daughter Hattie -- struggle to save the family rice plantation. When Sherman offers the conquered city to President Lincoln as "a Christmas gift," Hattie and the feared general find themselves on a collision course that will astonish both of them.

In this rousing new tale, John Jakes tells a story of battlefield danger, wartime romance, and indomitable courage. The rich cast of characters includes a corrupt judge who positively exudes Dickensian wickedness, a fast-talking piano-playing reporter from New York, a pair of thwarted young lovers, a raffish Indiana cavalryman, a valiant former slave who practices bird calls with surprising results, and a whole bagful of rascals, rebels, and real soldiers who marched with Sherman.

Together they bring to life a season of simmering hostilities, rising hopes, and empty stockings -- perhaps the most strife-torn yet heartwarming Christmas in all of American history.

About the Author

John Jakes is the acknowledged contemporary master of the family saga. He is the creator of the legendary eight-volume Kent Family Chronicles, the Main and Hazard families of The North and South Trilogy, and the Crowns of Chicago, German-Americans whose stories interweave the history of the twentieth century in Homeland and its sequel, American Dreams. His 2002 novel, Charleston, returned him to the turbulent years of the Revolution and the Civil War, and became his sixteenth consecutive New York Times bestseller.

Praised as "the godfather of the historical novel," "the people's author," and "America's history teacher," Jakes mingles the lives of his fictional characters with those of historical personages, and involves them in the great events of U.S. and world. His devotion to a unique blend of strong storytelling and historical accuracy has won him a worldwide audience. More than 55 million copies of his Kent Chronicles are currently in print, along with nearly 10 million copies of The North and South Trilogy. Six of his major novels have been filmed as television mini-series. The first North and South production (ABC, David L. Wolper Productions, 12 hours) stands at 7th position among the 10 highest rated miniseries of all time.

Born in Chicago in 1932, John Jakes began writing professionally during his freshman year at Northwestern University, where he was studying acting. He decided to trade the stage for the typewriter when, at age 18, he sold his first story for $25. "That check changed the whole direction of my life," says Jakes.

He enrolled in the creative writing program at DePauw University, graduated in 1953, and in 1954 earned an M.A. degree in American literature from Ohio State University. After completing school, Jakes spent his days writing copy for a large pharmaceutical corporation, then several advertising agencies, including Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, one of the world's largest. At night he wrote and published short stories -- eventually 200 of them, along with some 60 books in genres such as mystery, western, and science fiction.

In March of 1973, Jakes began work on The Bastard, first of the eight volumes of The Kent Family Chronicles. The series, depicting American history through the lives of a fictional family, became the publishing industry phenomenon of America's Bicentennial decade. All eight volumes were bestsellers. In 1975, with the publication of volumes II, III, and IV, Jakes became the first author ever to have three books on the New York Times bestseller list in a single year.

New American Library has launched new editions of the series, to be published at regular intervals in 2004-2005. For each volume, the author had written a new introduction.

North and South, the first book in Jakes's celebrated Civil War trilogy, was published in 1982, Love and War in 1984, and the concluding volume, Heaven and Hell, in 1987. All three were number one bestsellers, and were made into top-rated ABC Novels for Television miniseries.

California Gold was published in 1989, and 1993 saw publication of Homeland, the first of a new cycle of novels about a fictional family in the twentieth century. Homeland was named by the New York Times as one of its "notable books of 1993." The Crown family saga continues in American Dreams. His novel of Civil War espionage, On Secret Service, was likewise a bestseller.

John Jakes holds honorary doctorates from five universities, the most recent from Ohio State. In 1995 he received the National Cowboy Hall of Fame's Western Heritage Literary Award for his short story Manitow and Ironhand, now collected in the anthology of Jakes stories, The Bold Frontier.

Also in '95 he was recipient of a dual Celebrity and Citizen's Award from the White House Conference on Libraries and Information, for speaking and writing on behalf of America's public libraries. In 1996 he became the tenth living inductee of the South Carolina Academy of Authors, and in 1997 he received the Professional Achievement Award of the Ohio State University Alumni Association. In 1998 the South Carolina Humanities Association awarded him its highest honor, for Career Achievement and support of the humanities, and in 2002 he received the Cooper Medal, presented by the Thomas Cooper Library of the University of South Carolina. Previous recipients include Joseph Heller, John Updike, and Pat Conroy.

From 1989 to 1996 Jakes was a Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of South Carolina. A scholarly study of his novels, John Jakes: A Critical Companion was published by Greenwood Press in the fall of 1996. The author is Dr. Mary Ellen Jones of Wittenberg University.

A lifelong admirer of the life and work of Charles Dickens, Jakes created a stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol for his home playhouse on Hilton Head Island in the late 80's. Since then the script has been widely produced by university and regional theaters, including the prestigious Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the Victory Theater of Dayton, and the Burt Reynolds Institute for Theater Training in West Palm Beach. The script is available through Dramatic Publishing Company.

John JakesContinuing with Dickens, Jakes wrote the book and lyrics for a musical adaptation of Great Expectations, which premiered in 1999 at Hilton Head's Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. The musical, with score by Tony-nominated composer Mel Marvin, was staged in August, 2001, by the famed Goodspeed musicals of East Haddam and Chester, CT, originator of such Broadway hits as Annie, Shenandoah, and Man of LaMancha.

Among his favorite writers, he lists Charles Dickens first ("the greatest novelist in the English language"), along with Zola, Balzac, Scott Fitzgerald, and Georges Simenon. His roster of admired historical novelists includes Dumas, Tolstoy, and among Americans, Kenneth Roberts, Hervey Allen, Thomas Costain and Samuel Shellabarger ("all four neglected and nearly forgotten now, which is a shame, because each is a wonderful story-teller"). He considers the late John D. MacDonald "one of the most consistently and unjustly underrated novelists of the last half of the twentieth century." Contemporary favorites include Larry McMurtry, John Irving, Robert B. Parker, and several personal friends: Sandra Brown, Patricia Cornwell, Ken Follett, John Maxim, and especially Evan Hunter, whom he has known for several decades, and to whom he dedicated On Secret Service.

John Jakes is a member of the Authors Guild, the Dramatists Guild, American P.E.N., and Western Writers of America, and serves on the board of the Authors Guild Foundation. He is married to the former Rachel Ann Payne of Danville, Illinois, whom he met at DePauw. They have four children and eleven grandchildren. They divide their time between homes in South Carolina and Florida.

Discussion Questions

John Jakes acknowledges Charles Dickens to be "the greatest novelist in the English language" and in Savannah respectfully and artfully pays homage to him.

  1. Can meaning be found in any of the names of the fictional characters in Savannah? Do you find that some are descriptive? Ironic?
  2. Like some of Dickens's novels, Savannah has an alternative title, A Gift for Mr. Lincoln. Which title do you prefer? Can you think of other possible alternative titles?
  3. In the 1860s, Dickens wrote contemporary fiction while Jakes writes historical fiction set in the same period. To the present-day reader, both writers are relating history. Describe each writer's advantages and disadvantages in telling his story from his perspective in time.
  4. What characters in Savannah can be said to have a heritage from characters in Victorian literature? (i.e., the wrongfully accused back from prison, the wicked judge, etc.)

2. There are numerous acts of treachery in Savannah. By degrees of venality of their nature and their transgressions, how would you order the dastardly trio of Judge Drewgood, Professor Marcus, and Isaiah Fleeg? Explain your decision.

3. Conversely, there are numerous acts of bravery and goodness in this novel. How are the good deeds of Alpheus Winks, Stephen Hopewell, and William Tecumseh Sherman similar? How are they different? Each, it could be said, is rewarded for his actions. Are the rewards incremental to their actions?

4. Nearly every character in this novel undergoes significant change from the time the reader is first introduced to him or her to the time that character exits the novel. In your opinion, which character's journey was the most profound?

5. Jakes has created numerous colorful characters in Savannah with only brief appearances in the story. What characters would you have liked to have learned more about? Why?

6. At the conclusion of the novel, future happy endings are suggested, but not posited, for some of the characters. In your own sequel to Savannah, what might happen to the major characters in the novel as the war ends and the Reconstruction begins?

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