James A. Michener


James A. Michener

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Centennial Summary

Thanks for exploring this SuperSummary Plot Summary of “Centennial” by James A. Michener. A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.

James Michener’s novel Centennial follows Dr. Lewis Vernor, a historian hired to complete research on Centennial, Colorado, a small town on the South Platte River. This premise serves as a contemporary frame for the deep historical dive Michener takes, as he goes from Colorado prehistory to contemporary Centennial, a dying agricultural community with wild weather. Michener uses this frame to get into the geological, cultural, political, and economic realities of life in Centennial since it became a landmass and the ways it has changed through the centuries.

The first chapter, “The Commission” reveals the fictional premise for the book. Dr. Lewis Vernor, a well-respected historian and scholar, has been commissioned by a US magazine to conduct fresh research on a piece that was recently written by a staff member. The editor wants Vernor's take on the history of Centennial, Colorado. This leads Vernor to go on a deep dive into the history of the region, from its geologic inception to the modern day.

The second and third chapters deal with the earliest realities of life in Centennial. First, the landmass forms; Michener focuses on the geological formation of the Rockies and the area around the South Platte River, where Centennial is located. He also goes into the general formation of the Earth and how the mountainous region came to be. Then, Michener goes into the earliest life forms living in Centennial – dinosaurs, which include the famous Diplodocus, and eventually early man.

From there, Michener moves onto a fictionalized account of life in Centennial as Arapaho Indian Lame Beaver. Lame Beaver talks about life among “Our People,” a tribe that would eventually become the Arapaho and Cheyenne. Eventually, Lame Beaver meets two fur traders and travelers, whom he is convinced are successful and wise men. Lame Beaver encourages his daughter to marry one of the men to find success.

Lame Beaver then goes on a trip to Blue Valley, where he discovers gold when he attacks an Indian and finds two bullets made of the precious substance. Lame Beaver's daughter is eventually married to one of the trappers, who believes she must know the secret location of this gold.

Later generations of the Arapaho and Cheyenne people struggle as white settlers move onto their land, taking it for their own and often killing native peoples in the process. The English arrive and start an enormous ranch called Crown Vee, which they maintain by taking control of all local water sources. Farmers eventually fight Crown Vee for use of their water and begin to establish an elaborate irrigation system that will dramatically change the plains region for generations to come. This leads to the establishment of a beet plantation and sugar beet factory, and the arrival of Mexican workers, who come seeking better lives in America. In the 1920s, the new farming practices of the region prove fatal, leading to the Dust Bowl, which devastates the region.

The novel ends with a chapter from the perspective of Paul Garrett, a descendent of Lame Beaver, who has gained control of the Crown Vee. He struggles to think of ways to rejuvenate the region, and is deeply concerned about the environment. He begins to research history for a centennial celebration being held in his town.

James A. Michener was an author and historian with a passion for writing novels based on the solid history of regions, countries, and towns. In his lifetime, he wrote more than forty books, many of which included family sagas and generational looks at particular landscapes and regions. Michener won the Pulitzer for Tales of the South Pacific in 1948. He later wrote a number of non-fiction books, including memoirs. He died at the age of ninety in Austin, Texas. In 1977, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions to literature and American history.
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