Captains and the Kings is an amazing story of an Irish immigrant who discovers the dark side of America and himself.
Joseph Armagh arrives in America in 1854, an impoverished orphan with a younger brother and sister to provide for. In his drive to pursue success and money, Joseph makes powerful allies and enemies, practically alienates his family, and gets involved with conspiracies in his drive for success.
Caldwell tries to accomplish two things with Captains and the Kings and she does at least one very well. The first accomplishment that this book has is it tells a memorable sprawling story with fascinating characters. Standing at the center of this large cast is Armagh himself.
Joseph is an easy person to be fascinated with or drawn to, but not an easy person to like. He is a completely contradictory character. As he gets involved with dangerous circumstances like slave trading, bootlegging, and shady business deals, he wants more of what these people have to offer. He is a very dark character who scoffs at any hope or optimism. Joseph orders the death or disgrace of most enemies with very little conscience. He marries an unstable woman for position and ostracizes her in pursuit of another woman. He dominates his brother and sister and becomes furious when they begin lives of their own.
But Joseph is not a one-dimensional character. He is a very multi-faceted man with a bit of humanity that shows every once in awhile. He has a very romantic and chivalrous side which he shows in his scenes with Elizabeth, a vulnerable woman with a cruel husband. At first dismissive of his children, he slowly begins to accept them and take pride in them up to the point where he tries to make his eldest son the first Catholic President of the United States (about 50 years before John F. Kennedy would do this in real life. One of the most touching scenes that shows Joseph’s better character is where he shows real regret in disgracing a senator, whom he realizes is a truly good man. Joseph isn’t aware of the ramifications of this moment until years later after he loses some family members.
Where Caldwell does not succeed so well is in wrapping his fascinating story around conspiracy theories, and offering them in real life. Joseph comes into a world of The Committee of Foreign Relations; shadowy men who make decision that affect the world around them. While it is fascinating reading for a novel, Caldwell’s theories show a bit of paranoia, especially her introduction. Nothing kills a work of fiction faster than the writer insisting “these are based on actual events.” Conspiracy theories are great in many works of fiction, but become tiresome when repeated and believed in reality.
In the parameters of the novel however, these scenes are quite well written simply because of how Caldwell portrays the Committee members. Joseph and later his son, Rory, become involved in some chilling meetings where these men discuss upcoming world wars, stock market panics and crashes, and Communist uprisings in a nonchalant matter as though they were items on a shopping list. Unlike Joseph, the other members of the Committee of Foreign Relations aren’t near as defined or faceted but they aren’t supposed to be. They are neither good nor evil. They are more like living forces of nature that shape the world to fit their needs. Joseph despite all of his money, and cynicism is at heart a naive character and doesn’t truly realize how dangerous they can be until they turn on him and his son. That’s when he truly sees the darkness of these business acquaintances.
Related Links & Activity Suggestions
The Gilded Age- Much of the action of this book takes place during the Gilded Age, a time in post-Civil War America when industrialism was on a rise and millionaires and robber barons did whatever it took to make their money. This link is for the PBS American Experience special on Andrew Carnegie and the Gilded Age. What marks of the Gilded Age are featured in Captains and the Kings? What marks shape the current era that we live in? How would you want people to remember it?
Joseph P. Kennedy-Some believe that Captains and the Kings is a fictionalized account of the life of Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy family. This website explores “Old Joe’s” life and legacy towards his family as well as the experience of Irish immigrants in America. What similarities and difference can you find in the fictional, Armaghs vs. the real, Kennedys? What other immigrants have left their impact upon this country? What obstacles did they go through for their new life in America and their pursuit of the “American Dream?” What legacies did they leave behind for their descendants? What about your ancestors, what obstacles did they endure, stories did they remember, and what legacy did they leave behind for you?
Literary Discussion Questions
1. Discuss Joseph’s character. What early events shaped the man that he would eventually become? Do you think that his cynical outlook makes him as smart and as worldly wise as he believes or do you believe that he is actually naive and more susceptible to temptation, why or why not?
2. Discuss the way that Enfield Bassett’s curse plays into the events. Do you think that the curse is real or are Joseph’s later sufferings results from his own earlier actions and those of others? Do you think Joseph’s life was fated or do you think that things could have changed if circumstances had been different? Would his life had turned out differently, if for example, Sean and Mary Regina stayed with him when they were children, or Joseph had a kinder outlook on life, would he have ended up the same way?