The 1917 bestseller list contains three novels that are definitely read-again novels for 2017: The Red Planet by William J. Locke, His Family by Ernest Poole, and In the Wilderness by Robert Hichens.
The only thing that common thread among my choices is that each is decidedly uncommon.
A domestic novel: His Family
I’ll start with Poole’s novel, which is in many ways the least unusual of the trio.
His Family is about a self-made man around the turn of the century.
When his wife died after 20 years of marriage, Roger Gale froze emotionally.
For the next 20 years, Roger kept his business going and saw to it that his three daughters were fed, clothed, and educated; he had no strength left to care for their emotional needs.
The novel explores Roger’s often ham-fisted attempts to connect with the adult children who he’d let grow up parent-less.
In one way, His Family is not a memorable book. The events are very much the sorts of things that happen in every family.
However, the ordinariness of the events the Gales experience makes His Family a novel one can come back to repeatedly to see how an ordinary family handles — or mishandles — life’s problems.
A cozy mystery: The Red Planet
Although the World War I provides the backdrop to much of the action of His Family, the war in Europe didn’t touch their lives significantly.
By contrast, the Great War permeates the pages of The Red Planet.
The Red Planet is a cozy mystery, presented as a memoir of a Boer War veteran living in a small English village when WWI broke out.
Duncan Meredyth, a paraplegic, is cared for by his ex-sergeant who was disfigured in the same shell blast that took Duncan’s legs.
When Duncan’s neighbors learn their son has been killed in France, Duncan remembers the Fenimore’s daughter, Althea, who was drowned less than a year earlier.
Duncan wonders what Althea had been was doing on the tow-path beside the canal at midnight.
His wondering leads to his listening, observing, and putting the clues together.
Readers of The Red Planet get far more than a good mystery.
They also get a peek into the great changes Britain experienced in 1914-18. Locke writes:
Thus over the sequestered vale of Wellingsford, far away from the sound of shells, even off the track of marauding Zeppelins, rode the fiery planet. Mars. There is not a homestead in Great Britain that in one form or another has not caught a reflection of its blood-red ray. No matter how we may seek distraction in work or amusement, the angry glow is ever before our eyes, colouring our vision, colouring our thoughts, colouring our emotions for good or for ill. We cannot escape it. Our personal destinies are inextricably interwoven with the fate directing the death grapple of the thousand miles or so of battle line, and arbitrating on the doom of colossal battleships.
A spiritual biography: In the Wilderness
In the Wilderness is a pre-war novel about a young man, Dion Leith, who was passionately in love with a woman who had turned him down numerous times.
Rosamund relinquished her plans and agreed to marry Dion after hearing a sermon urging “sharing a path” as a way to combat egoism.
Both Dion and Rosamund are intense and basically self-centered individuals, although their selfishness takes on very different expressions.
Dion thinks Rosamund’s religious faith stands between them, when the truth is that neither of them has real faith: Both have only emotion.
There’s nothing preachy about Hichens’ novel. His characters’ faith, or lack thereof, interests him as a facet of their personalities.
To the extent that Dion and Rosamund grow up, they outgrow the self-centeredness that marked their youthful religious beliefs.
Each of these three 1917 bestsellers is worth reading in 2017. Each is available to read for free at Project Gutenberg.