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In the early 1900s, readers relied on Mary Johnson to supply them regularly with novels about lower socioeconomic class individuals of superior ability who participate in history-making events.

In Lewis Rand, Johnson pulls out an unexpected ending that raises the novel above the pot-boiler class.

On river path, two mounted gentlemen in top hats fight while trying to control their horses

Lewis Rand fights Fairfax Cary, who thinks him allied with Aaron Burr.


Lewis Rand by Mary Johnson
F. C. Yohn illustrator. Houghton Mifflin, 1908.
[506+ pages] 1908 bestseller #7.
Project Gutenberg ebook #14697. My grade: B.

Lewis Rand wants to study law, but his father won’t even let Lewis attend school.

Their neighbor Thomas Jefferson intercedes on the boy’s behalf.

By 1804, Jefferson’s help and Lewis’s own ambition have marked him for at least the governorship, perhaps the presidency.

Lewis has an an accident outside the home of the pro-Federalist Churchills. While he recuperates in a Churchill bedroom, Jacqueline Churchill a proposal of marriage from his Federalist opponent.

Jacqueline marries Lewis against her family’s wishes.

After their marriage, Lewis becomes increasingly ambitious.

After turning turns down the nomination for Virginia governor, he begins corresponding in cipher with the audacious Aaron Burr about America’s newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase territory.

Johnson keeps the complicated political background understandable.

Where she falls down is in not allowing characters to speak for themselves.

The novel ends much as The Cruel Sea will end decades later. The one significant difference is that Nicholas Monserrat made readers care about George Ericson.

Johnson doesn’t make readers care about Lewis Rand.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

When she learns of her sister’s engagement, eight-year-old Bettina “Betty” Vanderpoel cries, “He’ll do something awful to you….He’ll nearly kill you. I know he will.”

Sir Nigel Anstruthers turns out as nasty as Betty predicts.


The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
1908 bestseller #5.
Project Gutenberg ebook #506. My grade: A-.

Green, hilly English countryside with a few sheep grazing, no people in sight.When he realizes Reuben Vanderpoel won’t support him, Sir Nigel craftily isolates Rosalie from family back in New York, then bullies her into transferring her property to him.

While Rosalie withers, Betty is educated in France, Germany, and in company of her astute capitalist father.

At 20, Betty goes to England to see Rosalie.

Sir Nigel has thoroughly cowed Rosalie and Ughtred, his son to whom the estate is entailed.

Betty takes charge, using her charm and her father’s money to make the estate liveable and her sister comfortable.

Inevitably, the Vanderpoel heiress is swarmed by suitors.

Betty’s heart, however, throbs for Lord Mount Duncan, who scorns the practice of marrying American money to put a deteriorating English estate to rights.

Although Frances Hodgson Burnett gives the novel the love-interest of a romance and the suspense of a thriller, the novel is deeper than those categories.

Burnett explores personalities, digs into gender roles, and shows how England and America were separated by culture and reunited by money.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Lure of the Mask is a novel composed entirely of characters.

Readers must take them as Harold MacGrath drew them; their fascination never makes them believable people.

Lady in fancy evening dress lowers her mask and looks over her shoulder toward the reader.


The Lure of the Mask by Harold MacGrath
Illus. Harrison Fisher and Karl Anderson.
Bobbs-Merrill, 1908, 1908 bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg ebook #22158. My grade: B-.

Italian-born American John Hillard hears a woman singing in classical Italian at 1 a.m. in January. He’s so charmed that he places an ad in The Times asking her to contact him.

She responds. They correspond. The woman refuses to reveal any personal details.

Finally she agrees to meet.

Hillard is blindfolded, brought to a home that seems familiar.

The lady is masked.

Hillard knows no more about her afterward than before.

Unable to locate the woman with whom he is infatuated, Hillard agrees to take his friend Dan Merrihew to Italy, where both can recover from the loss of their loves—or find them again.

They are accompanied by Giovanni, Hillard’s servant, who hopes his 7-year absence will have lessened the interest of the police in arresting him so he can finish the murder he botched earlier.

MacGrath’s complicated story is well-plotted and remains unresolved until the last page.

The Lure will catch and hold you for an entire evening.

You’ll be released untouched at bedtime.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

John Gale watches soldiers building a military post on the Yukon River and thinks, “The trail ends here!”

Necia Gale, his daughter, sees Lieutenant Burrell and thinks her trail is just beginning.

old photo shows Fort Yukon from vantage point in excavated pit

                        Old Fort Yukon


The Barrier by Rex Beach
[Harper’s, 310 pp.] 1908. 1908 bestseller #2.
Project Gutenberg ebook #4082. My grade: B.

In its first chapter, The Barrier prepares readers for a romance in which the Kentuckian’s bias against non-whites will have to be overcome.

Predictably, the young people fall in love.

But prejudice is trivial compared John Gale’s problem.

Gale’s difficulties are revealed slowly while readers see the kind of man he is and speculate on what he might have done in his early years.

Stark, a saloon-keeper, and his rascally companion, Runnion, arrive in Flambeau just as “No Creek” Lee finds gold. Stark puts up a tent and by nightfall is in business taking money from those who aim to strike it rich.

photograph of gold mining operation sluices

                            Mining for gold in the Yukon

Poleon Doret, who has loved Necia for years, gets only sisterly love and a commission to find out if Burrell means to marry her.

I won’t reveal the ending which is as quarter-turn left of predictable.

Aside from Necia, the characters, too, are just unusual enough to keep readers’ full attention.

Necia, sad to say, is just a pretty face with nothing between the ears.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mr. Crewe is not the hero of the Winston Churchill novel that bears his name, nor is he heroic.

While Crewe has a good brain, a fortune, and aptitude for hard work, he also has one serious handicap: Mr. Humphrey Crewe doesn’t have a lick of sense.


Mr. Crewe’s Career by Winston Churchill
1908 bestseller #1. Project Gutenberg Ebook #3684. My grade: B.

1800's era railroad train

Churchill’s real story is about lawyer Austen Vane, whose father is lobbyist for the Imperial Railroad, and Victoria Flint, daughter of the railroad’s CEO.

Predictably, Austen and Victoria fall in love.

The romance, however, is secondary to the young people’s relationships to their respective fathers.

Austen wins a case against the railroad, and Victoria starts asking her father embarrassing questions.

The railroad lobby, in the person of Hilary Vane, controls the state’s Republican Party and the statehouse.

Austen and Victoria both realize they need to set their own course without cutting off relationships with their fathers.

Meanwhile, Crewe, stymied by the railroad lobby in his efforts to pass reform legislation, declares himself candidate for governor.

Churchill uses Crewe’s career as a way to get an inside picture of the political machine.

It’s not a pretty picture.

Churchill wisely refrains from ending the novel with universal happiness. Too many of the characters have too many regrets for that.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

I had no difficulty selecting my two two choices of the 1918 bestselling novels: Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter and The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Both novels have an anti-establishment and feminist edge. I suspect had they been written by newcomers to publishing instead of by highly successful authors noted for quite different sorts of  bestsellers—Rinehart is best known for her mysteries and Stratton-Porter for light romances—they might not have attracted a publisher at all.

For a third recommendation, I’ll add The Pawns Count, a mystery-thriller by E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Daughter of the Land

I admit I’m not a fan of Stratton-Porter.  She tends toward romances in which the leading character are too good to be true and the plots too contrived to be believable.  But she was popular: Michael O’Halloran, The Keeper of the Bees, Laddie, The Harvester, and Her Father’s Daughter each were bestsellers.

In Daughter of the Land Stratton-Porter breaks from her usual pattern.

Kate Bates, the daughter, is not breathtakingly beautiful nor is in thrall to a male figure. She’s smart, shrewd, hardworking, and she knows exactly what she wants: Kate wants to be given the same opportunities as her brothers. Each of them got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.

The best Kate could hope for was what her nine sisters got on their marriages: “a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress.”

Unwilling to settle for anything less than 200 acres to farm, Kate strikes out on her own to seek her fortune from her only marketable assets: her brain and her kindness.

Stratton-Porter has Kate make a lot of mistakes and learn from each one of them. Some of her mistakes are deliberate acts of will. Many, however, are thoughtless choices she makes under physical and emotional stress—an unheroic type of mistake rarely made by leading characters in novels.

Not everyone likes Kate, but people respect her. They know she won’t lie to them; she won’t take advantage of them. Even her brothers accept that Kate’s method of settling their parents’ estate is fair to everyone.

Daughter of the Land is not great literature, but it’s a great story from which teenage girls and their parents today could learn a great deal—and enjoy the experience.

The Amazing Interlude

Like Stratton-Porter,  Rinehart was a prolific writer and for four decades a  popular one. A mystery, The Man in Lower Ten (1909), was Rinehart’s first bestseller. It’s probably still her most popular novel.

Rinehart followed that the next year with two more bestselling mysteries, The Window at the White Cat and When a Man Marries, which mingles comedy with mystery. By the time she published  K in 1915  her name had become firmly associated mysteries.

The Amazing Interlude was Rinehart’s first bestselling novel outside the mystery genre.

As she does in most of her books, Rinehart sets Interlude in settings that her readers would have recognized: small town America and the Western Front. The story is about a seemingly very ordinary young woman engaged to be married to a man she’s known all her life.  Sara recognizes that Harvey is dull and boring, but he’s the sort of man girls in her town marry.

When a letter describing the horrible conditions behind the front lines in Belgium is passed around town, Sara’s sympathy and imagination are stirred. She goes off to France to run a soup kitchen for soldiers.

Sara knows no French, has no foreign contacts, has no credentials, and she has no financial support other than from women of her church. Sara rises above her limitations, doing all sorts of things she would never have dreamed anyone could do, let alone herself.

While Sara scrubs floors and scrounges for food while shells explode around her, Harvey fumes because he thinks she’s playing instead of doing the accepted thing: staying at home tending to his wants.

Harvey gets the church women who funded Sara’s soup kitchen to quit sending her money to feed French soldiers. Without funds, Sara has to come home.

Rinehart makes readers understand that Interlude‘s Americans are not deliberately cruel or mean. They aren’t lacking in charity—as long as charity can be delivered by check from profits made doing activities one enjoys. It’s only when the enjoyment lags and the profits dwindle, or if the situation demands boring, dirty work, that compassion fatigue sets in.

Getting outside the security of her home, family, and town leads Sara to believe that being American means befriending people outside one’s home, family, and town; people who speak foreign languages, wear different clothes, have different religions; people who are dirty, smelly, lousy, contagious.

Sara comes home a changed person. Her idea of the world and America’s role in the world has changed forever.

The Amazing Interlude may find few enthusiasts in America’s current build-a-wall culture, but it’s all the more important reading for that.

The Pawns Count

E. Phillips Oppenheim was another popular and prolific author:  He turned out more than 100 novels. Oppenheim is best known for his thrillers, such as The Pawns Count.

Unlike my other two picks, Pawns’ is genre fiction whose continuing interest today beyond its entertainment value—it’s a good World War I-era thriller—is the insights it provides into how the war to end all wars laid the groundwork for World War II.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

I got my notes mixed up earlier when I posted my list of novels I planned to review in the remaining days of 2016, and gave you a list of novels whose reviews will appear in 2017. My apologies.

You will be getting reviews of the seven six bestsellers from 1908 that I hadn’t located when their time came around.

Here’s the list and their posting dates:

1908 #1 Mr. Crewe’s Career by Winston Churchill [Nov. 22]
1908 #2 The Barrier by Rex Beach [Nov. 26]
1908 #3 The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox Jr.
1908 #4 The Lure of the Mask by Harold MacGrath [Nov. 29]
1908 #5 The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett [Dec. 3]
1908 #6 Peter by F. Hopkinson Smith
1908 #7 Lewis Rand by Louis J. Vance [Dec. 6]
1908 #8 The Black Bag by Harold MacGrath [Dec. 10]
1908 #9 The Man from Brodney’s by George Barr McCutcheon [Dec.13]
1908 #10 The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by Louis Bromfield
1908 #10 The Weavers by Gilbert Parker [This was also a 1907 bestseller. My review of it will be posted early in 2017.]

The poll of your picks of the 1908 bestsellers will be posted on Dec. 17.

I’ll reveal my picks on Dec. 20.

I’ll probably have some extra content as my Christmas gifts to readers on Dec. 24 and again on Dec. 27.

Dec. 31 I’ll see out the old year with a post about the best of the novels I reviewed here in 2016.