These two novels make American history breathe

My top picks from the 1915 bestseller list are each windows into America’s transformation from the horsepower age to the motor age: The Turmoil by Booth Tarkington and The Harbor by Earnest Poole.

Tarkington and Poole were each Pulitzer Prize winners, though they didn’t win for their 1915 novels.

The two novels have several common threads. Each focuses on the boy who tries to pick his own way in the world despite a dominant, even domineering,  father.

In each novel, the son never approaches his father’s stature, either for good or ill. The father in The Turmoil is a scoundrel; the father in The Harbor is an honest man, but rigid.

In each book, the setting acts almost as a character, influencing how the humans behave. The Turmoil is set in a mid-size American City obsessed with growing bigger, wealthier, more powerful. The Harbor‘s setting is the New York City Harbor in which new ideas wash up with the tides.

Reading these two novels as a set would provide a fairly good introduction to American economic history from the Civil War to the First World War.

 

Eccentrics abound in Angela’s Business

By day, Charles Garrott, 29, earns a skimpy living as private tutor.

By night, he’s “the coming American novelist.”


Angela’s Business by Henry Sydnor Harrison

Frederic R. Gruger, Illus. Project Gutenberg EBook #34297. 1915 bestseller #10. My grade: B+.


1915-10_illus4Charles is a Modern Man. He considers his dear friend Miss Mary Wing a perfect example of the New Woman. She’s the first female City High School assistant principal and a rising star in the education reform movement.

When Charles meets Mary’s young cousin Angela Flower, who considers home-making a full-time business, he feels less scorn than his modernity might dictate.

And when Mary is demoted for championing a woman who ran off with a married man Charles is unwilling to call it “a plucky thing.”

Angela’s Business is raised two steps above the typical romance by its almost-eccentric leading man and a plot nearly too odd to have been invented.

Henry Syndor Harrison neatly sets readers up to expect Charles to fall in love with Angela and conventional attitudes.

But Harrison doesn’t do the expected.

Instead, he presents people who are bundles of contradictions.

They face challenges and learn, but they never quite get their acts together.

There’s always an emotion they can’t quite control or a question for which they can’t find an answer.

The result feels like life, only more amusing.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Lone Star Ranger is too good for its ending

In his father’s day, a gun-fighter worried only about better gunfighters. Since then the Rangers have been organized to bring law and order to Texas.

Buck Duane will be the last of his gun-fighting family.


The Lone Star Ranger by Zane Gray

Project Gutenberg eBook #1027. 1915 bestseller #9. My grade: B-.


After killing a man in a gunfight, Buck flees in the Rio Grande country. He lives among a gang of outlaws long enough to make enemies, then wanders alone for some two years.

Captain MacNelly of the Texas Rangers hears enough good of Buck to offer him a pardon if he’ll work undercover for him.

Buck accepts.

His task is to find and destroy the gang whose mastermind, Cheseldine, no one appears to have ever seen.

In Fairdale, in the heart of cattle rustling country, Buck is captivated by the mayor’s lovely daughter.

Most readers will guess how the plot resolves itself.

Why Buck feels drawn to kill is the story’s real interest. Zane Grey makes Buck’s first gunfight into what we’d call a virtual reality experience today—and we’d seek a label warning it isn’t suitable for all audiences.

Grey suggests some possible answers, but doesn’t come to any conclusion. Instead, he ruins the story by promising Buck will stop killing because of “the faith and love and beauty of [a] noble woman.”

The Lone Star Ranger isn’t a great novel, but it deserves a better ending than that.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Harbor is an excursion into lived history

The Harbor is a fictional history of the major upheavals in American life between 1865 and 1915 as experienced by a family who lived and worked on New York City’s waterfront.

[The New York Public Library’s digital book New York City Harbor puts the novel in its historical and visual setting.]


The Harbor by Ernest Poole

Grossett & Dunlap, 1915. Project Gutenberg ebook #29932. 1915 bestseller #8. My grade: B+.


Part owner of a warehouse on the docks, Bill’s father dreams and works his entire life for a golden age of shipping dominated by America and delivered by honorable men in beautiful vessels.

Bill’s college-educated mother is repelled by the harbor’s scenes and people. The family is not rich enough for New York society.

Following his mother’s lead, Bill first sees the harbor as an unpleasant place.

As a youth, Bill comes under the sway of an engineer, soon to be his father-in-law, who serves the god of efficiency and the pocketbooks of Wall Street.

Later Bill falls under the spell of a revolutionary who shows him the human cost of efficiency, and Bill becomes enamored of the wisdom of the masses and organized labor.

Bill narrates with the detachment of hindsight. He is, however, sufficiently self-aware to realize he’s all too likely to jettison today’s struggle for the next big thing.

Into this framework, novelist Ernest Poole pours the personal stories of Bill and his extended family who are as real as the folks at your family reunion.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Felix O’Day mysteriously freshens biblical plot

Who is the middle-aged, British gent who says he’s too broke to pay his rent?

The one who looks for someone each night among patrons of Broadway’s theaters and restaurants?


Felix O’ Day by F. Hopkinson Smith

Project Gutenberg ebook #5229. 1915 bestseller #7. My grade: B.


It’s Felix O Day.

The novel of which Felix is titular character is a romance that derives its interest mainly from the Felix’s mysterious behavior.

While Felix is negotiating a loan at a secondhand  shop, he tells owner Otto Kling some of his merchandise is undervalued. Impressed, Otto asks Felix to come work for him.

Otto arranges for Felix to room across the street with Kitty and John Cleary, who own a moving company.

It’s a happy arrangement.

Felix mostly enjoys the work.

He is charmed by Maisie, Otto’s 10-year-old daughter.

He learns to know and value Kitty and the other Fourth Street business owners.

One day an unexpected discovery leads Felix to share his secret with the local priest, Father Cruse. That, and advice from Kitty, lead to a happy ending.

Felix O’Day kept me up past my bedtime. Though the parable of the lost sheep post’s familiar,  author F. Hopkinson Smith makes Felix, with his inbred class-consciousness, sufficiently human to make it feel fresh.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Jaffery narrator gives perspective and poignancy

Jaffery is an odd novel in which war correspondent Jaffery Chayne, a character better suited to a graphic novel than a literary one, appears only sporadically.


Jaffery by William J. Locke

Illus. F. Matania. Publisher, John Lane, 1915. Project Gutenberg ebook #14669. 1915 bestseller #6. My grade: B-.


Jaffery arrives back in England, escorting widow Liosha Prescott, just as Adrian Boldoro publishes a novel to great acclaim.

Liosha deals with loose cargo during a storm at sea
Loose cargo in the hold during a storm is no problem for Liosha Prescott

Liosha is Jaffery’s mate in appearance and temperament, but Jaffery is too besotted with Doria Jornicroft to notice her.

Despite her father’s opposition, Doria has gotten engaged to Adrian,  which skewers Jaffrey’s plan to fix Liosha up with Adrian.

Neither Jaffery nor Hilary Freeth would have been surprised had their deceased Cambridge pal, Tom, published a bestseller, but no one expected “precious, finnikin Adrian” to amount to anything.

When Adrian dies suddenly with a new book unfinished, Jaffery sees his chance to win Doria.

Jaffrey’s plan backfires.

Liosha has her own romantic contretemps.

Both sign on as hands on a tramp steamer, returning home in time to tie up the plot.

Liosha quiets a horse while Jaffrey talks to a native.
Liosha and Jaffrey are in the war zone in the Balkans.

William J. Locke packages the novel as Hillary’s memoir. Funny, loving and loveable, Hilary, together with his wife and daughter, provide a common-sense perspective for viewing the antics of others who seem be playing roles they scripted for themselves.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

K by Rinehart scrimps on happily ever after

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s  K  blends romance and mystery so satisfactorily that the unlikely plot coincidences aren’t noticeable until after the novel is back on its shelf.


K by Mary Roberts Rinehart

1915 bestseller #5. Project Gutenberg EBook #9931. My grade B.


When their circumstances fall below genteel poverty level, the Page women take in borders.

Newlyweds Christine and Palmer Howe move into what had been the Page’s parlor and back sitting room.

Mr. K. LeMoyne puts his suitcase in what had been daughter Sidney’s bedroom.

Sidney is in training as a nurse, which will eventually bring in a good, steady income.

She finds surgeon Max Wilson very attractive.

Joe Drummond, who loves Sidney, is frantic. He knows the surgeon’s reputation with women and fears the worst if Dr. Max takes an interest in her.

K settles comfortably into the neighborhood, falls silently in love with Sidney, and becomes the man everyone goes to with their troubles.

Who is K?

How did he come by his wealth of knowledge?

Why does nurse Carlotta Harrison fear K so much she risks offending Dr. Max to avoid him?

Rinehart produces answers, lets all the characters learn from their experiences, and pulls everything together so that everyone lives less unhappily ever after.

For boarding-house operators, less unhappily is as good as it gets.

­

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Pollyanna grows older but no more mature

Eleanor H. Porter’s “Glad Girl,” Pollyanna, captivated readers, who clamored for more about the plucky orphan.

Porter obliged with Pollyanna Grows Up.


 Pollyanna Grows Up by Eleanor H. Porter

Page, 1914. 306 pp. Project Gutenberg ebook #6100. 1915 bestseller #4. My grade: B-. 


Worried that her niece will be spoiled by being treated as a “cure” for depressed people, while she and her husband go abroad Aunt Polly lets Pollyanna spend a year in Boston with a rich, miserable widow.

Under Pollyanna’s influence, Mrs. Carew adopts a crippled orphan with the same name as her lost nephew, Jamie, and befriends a shop girl, Sadie.

After the year in Boston, Pollyanna goes to live with with her Aunt Polly and her husband in Europe.

When Aunt Polly’s husband dies, she and Pollyanna return to Beldingsville, where they have a house but no income.

Pollyanna decides to take in boarders, beginning with Mrs. Carew and her entourage. Pollyanna introduces them to her Beldingsville friends, resulting in a web of romantic entanglements.

The plot of Pollyanna Grows Up is even more clumsy and contrived than that of its predecessor.

What’s more, the self-assurance that made the child Pollyanna invulnerable to insult makes the adult Pollyanna appear stupidly insensitive to emotional tone.

All but die-hard Porter fans will find, I fear, that Pollyanna hasn’t so much grown up as grown old.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Michael O’Halloran: inspiration for the unthinking

Gene Stratton-Porter’s Michael O’Halloran is what is often called an “inspirational” novel, which in this case, as in many others, means ridiculous.

Orders Mickey's dying mother left for him.
Directions Mickey’s dying mother left for him.

Michael O’Halloran, 10, is an orphan who lives alone, supporting himself selling newspapers and advising the editor on what to put on the front page.


Michael O’Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter

©1915, 1916. 1915 bestseller #3. Project Gutenbergebook #9489. My grade C-.


Mickey finds another orphan, a crippled girl he names Lily, and assumes sole responsibility for her care.

Meanwhile, lawyer Douglas Bruce’s colleague Mr. Minter has taken a slum kid into his office, so Bruce takes Mickey into his.

Bruce’s fiancée, Leslie Winton, attempts to save the Minter’s marriage by getting Mrs. Minter into the swamp to listen to bird songs and repent of her failure as a mother.

Mrs. Minter repents, but it’s some time before her husband learns enough bird songs to get over their sons’ murder of their sister.

At the behest of his future father-in-law, Bruce is investigating city government corruption.

Employees in Mr. Winton’s department deny wrong-doing.

Thanks to Mickey, Winton has time to replace the money he “borrowed” before Bruce finds out, so the taint of corruption never ascends to Winton himself.

Then Mickey wraps up the novel by curing Lily’s crippled back.

Now doesn’t that inspire you?

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni