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I could not put Diane of the Green Van down.

It is the most bizarre novel I have ever read.

Leona Dalrymple must have pulled a paragraph out of every novel in a very large library to come up with the story.

I even cannot begin to summarize the plot. Let me just say the romance involves:

  • secret messages hidden in candlesticks,
  • murder attempts by night,
  • a mechanical music contraption,
  • a hay wagon,
  • a masked ball,
  • two run-away European princes,
  • an American flyer,
  • an alcoholic drug-user who invents an electrified chess set to torture people,
  • a Connecticut lass who may possibly  be the legitimate (or illegitimate daughter) of a prince, or an artist, or the man she called her father,
  • an Indian lass who may possibly be the legitimate (or illegitimate) daughter of a Indian, or an artist, or a European prince,
  • a doctor who does psychotherapy and holistic healing among the Seminole Indians in the Florida Everglades, and
  • an overweight aunt of the Connecticut lass and the alcoholic drug user who holds the secret to all the mysteries but is constitutionally incapable of uttering a coherent sentence.

There are also two dogs and lots of roasted potatoes.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Diane of the Green Van
by Leona Dalrymple
Illustrations by Reginald Birch
Project Gutenberg ebook #16101
1914 bestseller # 8
My grade: C-
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Cover of 1914 edition of Penrod features an ink drawing of Penrod readingBefore the Great War, before iPods and video games, boys invented their own fun.

Penrod Schofield, age 11, is nothing if not inventive.

Silent films give him outlines of stories. Penrod’s imagination transforms them into stunning productions in which he plays the lead.

Booth Tarkington is justly famous for his word portraits of adolescents from a bygone era. His tongue-in-cheek comments and Gordon Grant’s sketches for Penrod are sure to tickle your funny bone.

In his imagination, Penrod is strong, brave, and powerful.

In his home, he’s a trial.

In his neighborhood he’s “the worst boy in town.”

Penrod’s family tries hard to control his behavior, but their idea of appropriate behavior for boys —Sunday School, attending dance classes — doesn’t appeal to Penrod. He’d rather spend his time with “Herman and Verman,” the neighbor kids whose father is in jail.

The worst insult that anyone can give Penrod is to call him “a little gentleman.” Anyone who attempts such vile language is apt to be tarred.

Fortunately, few people have reason to offer that particular insult.

The only person who actually understands Penrod is his ancient Aunt Sarah. She says boys are just like people, only “not quite so awful, because they haven’t learned to cover themselves all over with little pretenses.”

Penrod
By Booth Tarkington
Illustrated by Gordon Grant
Grosset & Dunlap
306 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #402
1914 bestseller # 7
My Grade: C+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Close up photo of toad

Yes, my parents were a prince and princess.

The Fortunate Youth is far from a literary masterpiece, but William J. Locke knows how to spin a yarn so ideas worth pondering stick to it.

As the story opens, 11-year-old Paul Kegworthy  is living in a dirty industrial town with parents who are, in Locke’s tongue-in-cheek phrase, “not a model couple.”

A beautiful visitor to town says she’s sure Paul’s parents were a prince and princess. Paul thinks so, too. He itches to find his noble family.

A peddler gives Paul both a lift toward London, good food and good reading material.

Until he’s 23, Paul gets along on his good looks, first as an artist’s model in London, then as an actor in a rural touring company.

Every job that comes his way, Paul turns into an opportunity to develop noble behavior.

Paul has been selected a candidate for the House of Commons and as potential husband by the wealthy and lovely Princess Zobraska, when he discovers who is parents really are.

Needless to say, they weren’t of royal blood.

The candidate-suitor is revealed to be an imposter.

What can Paul do?

Locke keeps the story zipping along, slowing occasionally to let readers consider larger issues of determination, faith, and providence but never slipping into sermonizing.

The Fortunate Youth
By William J. Locke
Project Gutenberg EBook #4379
1914 bestseller #5
My grade: B

Photo credit: Toad by thegnome54

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Like many novels before the Great War, The Salamander attempts to explain social changes that terrified people who had grown to adulthood during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Author Owen Johnson focuses on one of the young women — Salamanders — who, like their brothers, were leaving small towns for the easy money and fun of New York City.

For the most part, Salamanders don’t work. They live by their wits and their looks.

One Salamander, Doré Baxter, called Dodo by her city friends, is bright, impulsive, ambitious, and highly principled in a scatterbrained way.

Dodo has dozens of men who dote on her, buy her meals, give her flowers or wine she can sell, but she doesn’t take money or expensive gifts: She is not that kind of girl.

Dodo plays one man against the other until she accidentally sets up a rivalry among powerful men that threatens to tear her like a kitten in among wolves.

The plot skeleton is familiar, as are some of the scenes, but Johnson’s jerky, cinema verity story-telling makes Dodo appealing even to those who find her life appalling.

I found myself holding my breath for fear of what I knew could happen to Dodo that she believed happened only to other people.

Tip: Read the novel before reading the foreword.

The Salamander
By Owen Johnson
Illustrated by Everett Shinn
Project Gutenberg EBook #36355
1914 bestseller #4
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In The Eyes of the World, Harold Bell Wright delivers a fire and brimstone denunciation of American culture on the eve of World War I.

Aaron King, a young painter whose dying mother sacrificed to finance his education and repay money his father embezzled, promises to be a success for her sake.

In hopes of lucrative commissions, Aaron goes West to a playground of American’s cultural elite. There he meets Conrad Lagrange. From her letters, Aaron knows his mother once had high respect for Lagrange’s writing.

At the time Aaron meets him, Lagrange has no respect for himself: He writes for money.

The plot and characters of Eyes will be familiar to every novel reader.  With Lagrange’s help, Aaron learns what true artistic success is. He meets good folk free untainted by city life. And, of course, he finds true love, as reward for his virtue.

Wright’s use of setting as a metaphor for morality will ring a bell with anyone who has read Zane Grey or Gene Stratton-Porter.

The only element that makes Eyes interesting is Wright’s harangue against artists who measure success in dollar bills.

That one who, for a price, presents a picture or a story without regard for the influence of his production upon the characters of those who receive it, commits a crime for which human law provides no adequate punishment.

Wright is so passionate in his denunciation that readers may wonder if perhaps Wright, the ex-clergyman, were preaching to himself.

The Eyes of the World
By Harold Bell Wright
Illustrations from oil paintings by F. Graham Cootes
Project Gutenberg EBook #11715
1914 bestseller #1
My grade: C+

Readers of this blog will probably recognize a few of the titles and authors appearing on the 1914 bestseller list.

Orphans Pollyanna and T. Tembarom are back for a second appearance on the bestseller list.

George B. McCutcheon returns with another Graustark novel.

And authors Harold Bell Wright, Winston Churchill and Booth Tarkington who made the bestseller lists repeatedly in the early twentieth century are back to entertain readers.

Project Gutenberg

Below is the list of 1914 bestsellers on my review list, with the date of planned review in square brackets. Links will take you to a digital version of the novel  if one is available or, if I’ve previously reviewed it, to my review which includes a link to an e-book version.

  1. The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright [Aug. 19]
  2. Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter
  3. The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill
  4. The Salamander by Owen Johnson [Aug. 23]
  5. The Fortunate Youth by William J. Locke [Aug. 26]
  6. T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  7. Penrod by Booth Tarkington [Aug. 30]
  8. Diane of the Green Van  by Leona Dalrymple [Sept. 2]
  9. The Devil’s Garden by W. B. Maxwell [Sept. 6]
  10. The Prince of Graustark by George B. McCutcheon   [Sept. 9]

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Of the 10 novels that were bestsellers in 1924, four stand out for providing far more than just an entertaining story: So Big by Edna Ferber, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher], The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, and The Midlander  by Booth Tarkington.

Cover of So Big by Edna FerberAlthough the stories are very different, each explores obstacles that make understanding another person’s perspective difficult.

In Edna Ferber’s So Big, Selina Peake rejects her father’s philosophy that life is “just so much velvet” worth experiencing regardless of how good or bad it appears at the time.

Late in life Selina comes to regret teaching her son the only things worth having in life are earned through hard work. Dirk reaches mid-life without having enjoyed living.

In The Midlander (which became National Avenue when Booth Tarkington put it in his single-volume trilogy Growth in 1927), Dan Oliphant never varies from the real estate career he chose almost at random in his early twenties.

Dan is so sure that his housing development will be a success, he lets every personal relationship shrivel while he puts all his effort into the Ornaby Addition.
Spine of Anne Douglas Sedgwick novel The Little French Girl
Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s The Little French Girl is the only one of my quarter of favorites not set in America. Alix Vervier’s mother has decided her 15-year-old daughter will marry within the family of an English war-time acquaintance. Mme Vervier ships Alex across the cultural solar system from France to England.

Alix must mature enough to regard her mother with sufficient dispassion that she can determine what of her mother’s behavior is motivated by love and what is motivated by self-interest.

In The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield [Fisher] shows Eva and Lester Knapp trapped in roles they both hate. By accident, Lester becomes the stay-at-home mom and Eva becomes the wage earner.

There’s no doubt everyone in the household is financially and emotionally better off as a result of the switch. It is also clear, however, that those gains come at a significant moral cost that the family may regret in the future.

Cover of The Home-MakerEach of these insightful novels is worth reading. So Big and The Home-Maker are written in very accessible styles. The Midlander requires a bit more mental work, but it’s not difficult reading.

To understand what’s happening in The Little French Girl demands full concentration and either a French dictionary or a reading knowledge of French. Readers who give it a chance will find it worth the effort.

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