Good, better, best: My top picks from 1956

In looking back over the 1956 bestseller list, I had two novels that competed for my vote for first place. The third place winner was simply far better than the other seven.

Here from good to best, are my picks for top novels of 1956.

Good: Don’t Go Near the Water

In William Brinkley’s novel,  Ensign Max Siegal is doing public relations work for the Fleet by promoting the Pacific island of Tulura to visiting congressmen.

Sailor using a sextant

Through Max, Brinkley pokes fun at incompetent officers, ignorant congressmen, and all the other traditional targets of draftees’ resentment, but he does it with a light touch.

Max is perceptive, witty and poker-faced; His jibes go unnoticed.

And Brinkley gives readers no reason to remember that elsewhere in the Pacific, other men are dying for their country.

Better: The Last Hurrah

Edwin O’Connor’s story about a lonely, aging politician also has a touch of humor.

Red, white and blue political button and text "Vote for Skeffington" above the line "It's The Last Hurrah"

Mayor Frank Skeffingham invites his nephew Adam along on campaign appearances as he runs for a fourth term.

Adam hears stories from his uncle and and others about how Frank has made it in politics.

There are plenty of laugh lines in the novel, but the reality of the crooked politician and the machinery that allows him to stay in power takes The Last Hurrah far beyond the realm of humor.

However charming Frank may be—and he’s definitely a charmer—he’s still a crook.

Adam and readers have to deal with that reality.

Best: The Tribe That Lost Its Head

Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel doesn’t contain much to laugh at.

all-text dust jacket of The Tribe that Lost Its Head

His story is about an Oxford-educated African chief returning home to assume the leadership of his country as it makes the transition from a British protectorate to an independent nation.

His remarks to a journalist as his plane lands are misunderstood.

The resulting flap sets up a violent clash between blacks and white. Leaders on both sides want peace, but they fail to seize opportunities to prevent war.

Monsarrat explains through his fictional characters the difficulties of leaders of emerging democracies and of struggling diplomats in states whose people are divided by religious and ethnic differences.

Thus The Tribe That Lost Its Head helps readers make sense of inexplicable events that stream daily across our news feed.


Coming next: the bestsellers of 1946 that I’ll be reviewing here.

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Linda Aragoni

I read. I write. I think. I make big ideas simple. I help teachers teach expository writing to teens and adults. In my free time, I read and review old novels.

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