Reread: A Daughter of the Land

woman dressed like music hall dancer on cover of Daughter of the Land
This isn’t Kate Bates.

As a rule, I don’t find much to like about Gene Stratton-Porter’s novels, but her 1918 bestseller, A Daughter of the Land, is head and shoulders above the rest.

It’s one of the novels on my must-read-again list.

Kate Bates, the daughter of the land, wants an share of her father’s property equal to that he gave his sons. She doesn’t get it.

Nor will her father let her pursue a teaching certificate that might allow her to earn money to buy the farm she wants. So Kate takes matters into her own hands.

Unlike most of Stratton-Porter’s leading characters, Kate seems like a real person.

She wants a 200-acre farm and a fashionable hat, too.

Woman wearing embroidered dress is on this cover of Daughter of the Land.
This isn’t Kate Bates either.

She doesn’t just have set-backs.

She totally messes up and creates her own misfortunes.

She develops a tough hide and retains a warm heart.

The artists who designed these covers for A Daughter of the Land never read the novel.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My picks of the 1918 bestsellers

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

Which are your picks of the 1918 bestselling novels?

Mull some cider, pull up a chair, and decide which are the best of the 1918 bestselling novels.

The break will do you good, and you’ll look very scholarly pondering the titles.

I’ll share my picks on Saturday, then it’s on to the 1917 bestsellers I missed first time around.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Sonia puts human face on first year of WWI

A memoir of 1898-1915 written by a “member of the governing classes” who spent those years at a British public school and at Oxford doesn’t sound particularly interesting.

And it wouldn’t be, except for what George Oakleigh records happened between August 1914 and August 1915.

Title Sonia: Between Two Worlds superimposed on map of pre-World War I Europe


Sonia: Between Two Worlds by Stephen McKenna

George H. Doran, 1917. 475 pages. 1918 bestseller #10. My grade: B.


The Prague-born son of an Irish lord who, after his pro-Greek father was murdered by Turks, worked his way back to England, David O’Rane pays all his money to buy one term’s tuition at Merton.

David quickly wins admirers and friends including George, the reliable guy everyone trusts; Jim Loring; Tom Dainton, and Tom’s younger sister, Sonia.

Sonia enters into a secret engagement with David until she decides he isn’t rich enough for her.

Sonia later becomes engaged to Jim Loring, whom she also dumps.

Sonia is motoring on the continent in August, 2014, when war is declared.

David borrows an American identity, gets Sonia out of danger, and escorts her home.

Then he enlists.

Stephen McKenna makes the David-Sonia story end well, but little else does.

McKenna’s descriptions of Melton, Oxford, and party politics are only for the initiated.

His descriptions of the feeling of the possibility and then the certainty of wa­r are for everyone.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Daughter of the Land is flawed, heroic feminist

Gene Stratton-Porter was not only a prolific author, but a prolific author of bestselling novels.

A Daughter of the Land is better than any of her others.


A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter

1918 bestseller #9. Project Gutenberg ebook #3722. My grade: B+.


The novel is about Kate Bates, youngest of 16 children of one of the richest, stingiest, and most egotistical farmers in the county.

Kate’s seven brothers each got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.

The nine Bates girls each got “a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress when she married.”

Kate bitterly resents the disparity.

When her father refuses to let her take a summer course that would qualify her to teach, Kate borrows money from her sister-in-law and goes out on her own.

The novel follows Kate from Normal School training into teaching, courtship, marriage, motherhood, widowhood, and, eventually to love as she pursues her goals of “a man, a farm, and a family.”

Aside from one slip when she has Mr. Bates seeming to applaud Kate’s rebellion, Stratton-Porter tale of an heroic and flawed woman’s fight to run her own life—and a 200-acre farm—feels entirely true.

Kate makes plenty of mistakes along the way, but she accepts their consequences an moves on.

In my book, that’s heroic.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Sexy WWI female spy proves The Pawns Count

The Pawns Count is a can’t-put-down thriller about a female spy in the tense days when Germany and England were fighting trench-to-trench in France.

E. Phillips Oppenheim clothes characters from the era’s pop fiction with individual personalities and immerses them in detail his readers would have heard shouted by paperboys in London and New York.


The Pawns Count by E. Phillips Oppenheim

1918 bestseller #8. Project Gutenberg ebook #9836. My grade: B+.


Pamela VanTeyl is lunching with a British officer in a London restaurant when another guest, an explosives inventor, goes to wash his hands, and disappears.

When Pamela visits two of the restaurant’s employees that afternoon, readers learn that she’s much more than a rich, sexy, American socialite.

Pamela is actively pursued by German-American Oscar Fischer, a man her equal in brains and fortune. As long as America stays out of the war, Fischer is for Germany first, America second.

Pamela also pursued by John Lutchester, a lightly-wounded British officer doing desk duty in the Ministry of Munitions.

Before the novel ends, the intrigue has reached to the highest levels of government in four nations.

Oppenheim’s novel is more than a pleasant pass time: It gives a window into American attitudes toward Europe and the Great War, and lays the historical groundwork for the next war two decades later.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Major an amalgam of familiar plot lines

Canadian Expeditionary Forces artillerymen prepare shell as early Christmas present to Germany, Nov. 2016
Canadian artillerymen ready early Christmas package to Germans.

Larry Gwynne, normally an obedient 10-year-old, plays hooky from school with some other boys one spring day.

Challenged to prove himself in a fight, Larry refuses. The other boys say he’s a coward, like this Quaker mother.


The Major by Ralph Connor

1918 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg ebook #3249. My grade: C.


From that beginning, Ralph Connor produces a novel about how rural Canadians responded first to the threat and then to the fact of the first World War.

The plot is an amalgam of familiar story lines.

As the title suggests, Larry grows up to become a major in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.

There are several romances in the novel as Larry’s two sisters, some of their friends, and then Larry himself find true love.

There’s also a plot of sorts about Larry’s beloved mother, scrimping to supply the necessities her husband’s inept management deprives them of.

Connor doesn’t actually develop any of the plots: He merely drags them through the same pages together.

The novel is not a bad first draft, but it needs a good working over with a blue pencil to reduce the number of plots, and give more definition to the central characters, and smudge the outlines of the lesser ones.

Connor’s skills improved with practice, as his bestseller the following year shows.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Greatheart lacks great solution

In Greatheart, Ethel M. Dell has created characters readers will care about and eagerly follow, hoping for their happiness.

But, as often happens to Dell, when it’s time to end the story, she doesn’t know how to solve the problem she plotted.


Greatheart by Ethel M. Dell

1918 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg ebook #13497. My Grade: B.


snow-covered mountains viewed from high above. People are tiny black wrinkles along path through snow.
Trekking through snow.

Greatheart concerns the three Studley siblings, Sir Eustace, Scott, and Isabel.

Since Isabel’s husband’s tragic death on their honeymoon and her subsequent mental and physical decline, the brothers have been trying in their different ways to help her back to health.

At a resort in the Alps, the brothers become acquainted with Dinah Bathurst, a perky English country girl traveling with Colonel and Lady de Vignes as companion to their daughter, Rose.

Scott is drawn to Dinah, but she’s tantalized by his handsome, athletic brother.

However, Eustace’s passionate pursuit of her soon frightens Dinah.

Scott’s attempt to discourage Eustace makes him even more determined to have Dinah.

Isabel comes out of her funk enough to try to protect Dinah, but she dares not protest when Dinah agrees to marry Eustace.

Dell is brilliant at creating suspense, and she makes Dinah’s behavior believable in light of her abusive mother and spineless father.

The only unbelievable element is sexual predator Eustace’s sudden reformation.

Unless, of course, a miracle happened.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

O, Money! Money! financially sound fun from the glad girl author

Eleanor H. Porter recovered from writing two Pollyanna novels with the 1918 publication of Oh Money! Money! a rollicking tale that makes “the glad girl” look downright dull.

It also manages to make good financial sense.

Stacks of money with surprinted message that money won't buy happiness unless exchanged for things that will bring happiness


Oh, Money! Money! A Novel by Eleanor H. Porter

Helen Mason Grose, illus. 1918 bestseller #5. Project Gutenberg ebook #5962.
My grade: B+.


At age 52, bachelor Stanley G. Fulton knows he should name an heir to his $20 million.

His only family are three cousins named Blaisdell whom he’s never met.

He decides to them each $100,000 a test of their ability to manage a sudden windfall.

Calling himself John Smith, a man doing research into the history of the Blaisdell family,  Stan travels east to Hillerton and becomes a boarder with his cousin Fred’s family.

His research allows “Mr.Smith” entree into the homes of all his relatives so he can see how each recipient handles a windfall.

His unassuming personality soon has them accepting his presence at every discussion of family business.

Stan is introduced to “Poor Maggie,” a relative by marriage whose good sense and empathy make her a favorite with everyone in Hillerton.

Unlike the Pollyanna novels that sound forced, Money! sparkles.

“Mr. Smith” and “Poor Maggie” don’t have to play a glad game: They’re mature people who’ve learned how to be content.

And the three Blaisdell households’ different attitudes toward money reflect small town America into the 1930s.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dere Mable sees WWI recruit’s funny side

Dere Mable is what it’s fictional narrator would probably call an E. Pistol Larry novel.

Dust jacket of Dere Mable shows Bill Smith in his tent in France penciling a letter to Mable back home.

The American army is attempting to turn Bill Smith into a clog in its fighting machine in France.

Bill had mastered the clog part before he reached training camp.


Dere Mable: Letters of a Rookie by Edward Streeter

G. William Breck. illus. 1918 bestseller #4. Project Gutenberg ebook #13993.
My grade C.


Turning Bill into a soldier makes defeating the Germany army look like child’s play.

Bill writes Mable chatty letters about life in the Army where “bed and board mean the same thing” and recruits are told to “walk a post but their aint no post.”

Bill tells Mable he’s taking French lessons at the YMCA so he can talk to girls when he gets to France, but when Bill hears Mable has been spending a lot of time with someone named Broggins, he is furious.

Dere Mable has little plot and virtually no character development. G. William Breck’s droll illustrations bring the story to life and make it long enough to be called a book.

Though he makes Bill a comic figure, Edward Streeter’s tone is gentle. He doesn’t mock Bill for lack of education, but for his smug self-delusion.

Streeter’s respect for the American conscript is what makes Dere Mable a more durable work than Mac Hyman’s No Time for Sergeants 36 years later.

Streeter dedicates his novel to the privates who "serve as a matter of course."
The dedication page of Edward Streeter’s Dere Mable

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni