James Michener's novels generally tell the story of a geographical location - sometimes large, sometimes small - through a fictional set of interrelated characters. Chesapeake (perhaps a more accurate title would have been Choptank, but never mind) follows the careers of three families living on the eastern shore of this great bay. The Steeds: Rich, well-educated pro-slavery plantation owners, forced to take the lead in the Revolution even though they considered themselves royalists. The Turlocks: uneducated, racist slavers/pirates/privateers, living off the land, poaching and killing Natives, English, and runaway slaves. The Paxmores: Quaker shipbuilders, lynchpins of the underground railway and moral voices of the Choptank area.
The timeframe is from the 15th century to Watergate. Multiple generations of these three families come and go. In spite of the huge numbers of characters, Michener manages to keep everything clear. Each chapter is basically a short story - one is the story of a slave brought from Africa, sold to the Steeds, who eventually buys his freedom. Another is the story of a Turlock privateer's running feud with a British captain through the War of 1812 and beyond. These short stories are all interwoven in a larger narrative that develops the land and history of the Chesapeake.
For my money, Chesapeake is a well-crafted tale, seamlessly intertwining the individual stories into a coherent whole. Michener does a much better job here than with, for example, the disjointed Caribbean. My only complaint is the fact that the last two chapters are extremely weak - rambling, self-indulgent, and without focus. However, as this is only 100 pages of a 1000 page book, there is so much more to like that I recommend it to anyone. Even those, like me, who previously had little interest in the area and who have never visited the Chesapeake.