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I had no difficulty picking my favorite of the 1955 bestsellers. Something of Value by Robert Ruark is head and shoulders above the rest.

Marjorie Morningstar would be my number two choice of the best of 1955 bestsellers. Herman Wouk’s exploration of a start-struck girl’s growing up won’t ever go out of date, but it’s too personal to have the impact that Ruark’s broad canvas achieves.

Photo of Robert RuarkNot only is Something of Value well-plotted and peopled with believable fictional characters, but it is written with a reporters eye for telling detail.

With Africa’s rise as a center of influence, the background Ruark presents in an accessible fashion presents a timely introduction to one of its most rapidly developing nations: Kenya.

In the foreword written in 1954, Ruark says

This is considerably more than a book about the Mau Mau terror which has claimed constant attention on the front pages of the world for the last two years. A great deal has been written about the Mau Mau. A great deal of foolishness has been committed in the failure of the British to recognize that what they saw happening to themselves in Kenya was not, as they first thought, a local brush fire but a symptomatic ulcer of the evil and unrest which currently afflict the world.

…..

This might be possibly a true story of Kenya and of the events over the last fifty years which lead to the present tragedy of the Mau Mau uprising, with all its sadistic murder and counter-murder. The book is completely true in reporting that its early skeletal structure rests on stony fact, which may be found in reference as fact. Some of these facts have been altered and condensed to comply with novel form, a it always customary But they remain facts. The characters in this book are entirely fictitious.

There is much blood in the book. There is much killing. But the life of Africa was washed earlier by blood, and its ground was, and skill is fertilized by the blood of its people and its animals. This is not a pretty book….And it certainly is not a political book.

A North Carolina native, Ruark served in the navy during World War II.  Afterward, he became a newspaperman. achieving national prominenance as a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain.

Ruark’s love of hunting, fishing, and the outdoors in general led him to Africa. That in turn inspired him to abandon the security of New York and a regular paycheck for the uncertainty of freelance writing.

Ruark said , “Without the African experience, there would have been no topics for the scores of articles and stories and the two books which have combined to make me financially secure…”

He had published five nonfiction books and 500 magazine articles before Something of Value. In all, Ruark published 12 novels, including the 1959 bestseller Poor No More. A list of his novels are on the Robert Ruark Society website.

On his death in 1965 at age 49, Ruark left all his letters (including one containing the quote above), manuscripts, and published work to the The University of North Carolina.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

It’s time for you, dear readers, to tell which of the 1955 bestsellers you think are still tops today. You can vote for three. They are in randomized order.

If you want to share why you like a novel or why you think it think deserves rereading today, please use the comments section.

Irish writers are as famous as Irish whiskey: What reader hasn’t heard the names Bram Stoker, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift,  Oscar Wilde,  C.S. Lewis?

Yet best-selling novels featuring Irish characters are a fairly recent development.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, here are three recommended vintage novels featuring Irish characters that will entertain you and perhaps give some insight into the history of the Irish at home and abroad.

Kitty Foyle

1939-10-Kitty_FoyleKitty Foylethe heroine of Christopher Morley’s 1939 novel of that name, is a Philadelphia working-class girl from Irish immigrant stock.

She’s smart enough to be considered college material and dumb enough to fall for a Main Line guy whose family would never have accepted an Irish working-class daughter-in-law.

Kitty provides a glimpse into the second-generation Irish immigrant each-foot-in-a-different-world experience of the 1930s.

Joy Street

joy-street_200Joy Street by Frances Parkinson Keyes, 1950, gives a glimpse into the Irish absorption into America’s professional class.

The story is about Emily Field whose lawyer-husband’s firm, reaching out the the Boston immigrant community, hires a Jewish lawyer, an Italian lawyer, and an Irish lawyer.

Roger both likes and respects his colleagues, but Emily’s family is less than enthusiastic about immigrants who didn’t arrive on the Mayflower. Even Emily isn’t sure she’s keen on Irishmen, but she comes around.

The Edge of Sadness

1961-09-fc_edgesadnessIn his 1961 novel, The Edge of Sadness, Edwin O’Connor explores stereotypical Irish characters, who by 1960 have become a political and economic force in Boston.

The leading character is an over-50 priest, Father Kennedy, who after four years in a western facility for alcoholics , has been brought back East to lead a down-at-the-heels parish. The parishioners are primarily immigrants from post-war Europe and South America, too busy trying to make ends meet to come to church.

Have a good day reading of the green.

In Ten North Frederick, John O’Hara presents a fictional history of the upper echelons of society in a small Pennsylvania city in the first half of the twentieth century.

When the novel opens, it’s 1945 and Joseph B. Chapin has died.


Ten North Frederick  by John O’Hara

Random House, 1955. 408 pages. 955 bestseller #5. My grade: B-.


Dust jacket of Ten North Frederick shows imposing closed door.Chapins have lived at 10 N. Frederick since 1881. The family is at the top of the local social ladder by virtue of old money and old virtues.

Joe had the personality to succeed in Philadelphia or New York, but he felt—wisely, it turns out—his talents were only Gibbsville-sized.

Joe married a local girl who saw Joe’s limitations as an asset: She could own him.

By Gibbsville standards, Joe and Edith had a happy marriage.

Nobody on the outside saw how miserable they were.

O’Hara’s revelations of the secrets of “the best families” wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in most circles today. Even by 1950’s standards, O’Hara was not a pornographer.

At the end of the novel, Joe Chapin is buried, and people are wondering what his widow will do now.

Readers are no wiser.

They know a lot about Edith Chapin that she wouldn’t wish known, but they don’t know Edith Chapin.

For all his skill in plotting and dialogue, O’Hara never is able to make Edith more than a character in a history book.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Always prolix, Thomas B. Costain outdoes himself in The Tontine.

It is a dreary novel on an epic scale.


The Tontine  by Thomas B. Costain

Doubleday ©1955.  2 v. Illus Herbert Ryman. 1955 bestseller #9. My grade: C-.


London businessman Samuel Carboy smells a scam in the 1815 Waterlook Tontine. He intervenes to save investors’ money—and milk the scheme in a more civilized manner. Dust jacket of The Tontine shows four characters in 19th century dress against backdrop of an hourglass.

Carboy, his partner, and Carboy’s carriage driver each buy shares in the tontine for their children.

The story follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the three families as they mess about on every continent until the tontine survivors dwindle to three: Isabelle Carboy, Julian Grace, and Helen Groody.

Interest in the tontine reaches fever pitch.

So much money is bet on the outcome that the British government fears attempt on the lives of the remaining trio.

Costain has so many plots and sub-plots, he can’t remember them all.

Sam Carboy’s milking of the tontine disappears without a trace.

Carboy’s son conveniently dies in America.

His grandson bankrupts his company—” hard times” is the reason Costain gives—and goes off to Africa to be heard of no more.

Julian Grace’s son disappears, too.

Too bad more characters didn’t disappear before they appeared in print: The Tontine is an awful novel.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Robert Ruark’s Something of Value is a gory and compassionate novel about Kenya that will fascinate readers and leave them with plenty to think about as well.


Something of Value by Robert Ruark

Doubleday, 1955, 566 pages. 1955 bestseller #6. My grade: A+.


Spine of "Something of Value" shows tangle of long grassPeter McKenzie and Kimani, his Kikuyu pal, were raised together in Kenya.

When Kimani’s father lands in jail for failing to prevent midwives from killing a baby in accordance with native customs, Kimani blames himself: He brought a curse on his family by allowing  Peter’s brother-in-law to slap him.

Kimani has to kill the white man to remove the curse.

Thinking he has murdered a white man, Kimani flees and stumbles into a band of renegade blacks.

The outlaws become a guerrilla army, the Mau Mau, poised to throw off white rule.

Kimani is one of their leaders.

Peter, meanwhile, has become a great hunter. When an overeager Mau Mau band slaughters his sister’s family, Peter finds himself hunting his boyhood pal.

Travel, adventure, history, romance, politics—all are within these pages.

Without being preachy, Ruark makes the point that whites deprived black Africans of their religion and gave them in sham Christianity in its place, leaving them with no moral compass.

Renewed interest in Africa—particularly by communist China—make this novel timely.

Compelling writing makes it timeless.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Before he going off to war, Thomas R. Rath, had married, hoping he’d survive to come home to live happily with his wife.

Tom survived, but as the story opens, he hasn’t found happiness.

Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit resonated with readers in 1995 who, like Tom, were finding post-war life a let down.


The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson

Simon & Schuster, 1955. 304 pages. 1955 bestseller #5. My grade: B.


suited businessman with briefcaseFinding it hard to raise three children on his salary, Tom applies for a rumored opening in the PR department of a broadcasting company.

He’s hired and becomes a flunkey to the head of the company, a man whose folksy charm hides a driving ambition.

Tom’s unease in the job becomes acute when the elevator operator recognizes him from their paratrooper days.

Tom realizes that he’s become another “man in a gray flannel suit,” rushing around filling time, “pursuing neither ideals nor happiness.”

He’s forced to confront his past and his present.

Wilson’s novel is as good today as it was in 1955, but it won’t draw raves in our suitless society.

Today every is rushing about, looking busy with text messaging and phone apps and tablets.

Hardly anyone today stops to ask, “What am I doing this for?”

But they should.

As Tom learns, what sounds bitter and ironic may be simple truth.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Graphic credit: Business Shadow by ilco

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