For contemporary readers, the best reading from the 1944 bestsellers are two titles that have by two novelists who are largely unremembered. Each zooms in on behaviors that were outside the norms.
Strange Fruit is Lilian Smith’s story of an interracial couple in the South long before civil rights. The story is not just about race. It focuses on how the personalities of the individuals influence and are influenced by the racial prejudices in their societies.
Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams is a variation on the murder mystery pattern. Readers see all the events leading up to the discovery of a woman’s body. They know the deceased was pathologically jealous and vindictive. What they don’t know until the very end is whether she was murdered or whether she committed suicide. Both possibilities are equally plausible.
Less exciting than either of those titles, but still good reading, is A Bell for Adano by the better-known novelist John Hersey. Although Hersey’s novel is set in occupied territory during World War II, its tone is sweet by comparison to the bestsellers by Smith and by Williams. Its protagonist, Major Joppolo, is not as exciting as the maladjusted characters Smith and Williams describe, but his character, conviction, and common sense make him a more admirable one.
© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni