My picks of 1924: So Big, So Driven, So French, So Misplaced

Of the 10 novels that were bestsellers in 1924, four stand out for providing far more than just an entertaining story: So Big by Edna Ferber, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher], The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, and The Midlander  by Booth Tarkington.

Cover of So Big by Edna FerberAlthough the stories are very different, each explores obstacles that make understanding another person’s perspective difficult.

In Edna Ferber’s So Big, Selina Peake rejects her father’s philosophy that life is “just so much velvet” worth experiencing regardless of how good or bad it appears at the time.

Late in life Selina comes to regret teaching her son the only things worth having in life are earned through hard work. Dirk reaches mid-life without having enjoyed living.

In The Midlander (which became National Avenue when Booth Tarkington put it in his single-volume trilogy Growth in 1927), Dan Oliphant never varies from the real estate career he chose almost at random in his early twenties.

Dan is so sure that his housing development will be a success, he lets every personal relationship shrivel while he puts all his effort into the Ornaby Addition.
Spine of Anne Douglas Sedgwick novel The Little French Girl
Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s The Little French Girl is the only one of my quarter of favorites not set in America. Alix Vervier’s mother has decided her 15-year-old daughter will marry within the family of an English war-time acquaintance. Mme Vervier ships Alex across the cultural solar system from France to England.

Alix must mature enough to regard her mother with sufficient dispassion that she can determine what of her mother’s behavior is motivated by love and what is motivated by self-interest.

In The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield [Fisher] shows Eva and Lester Knapp trapped in roles they both hate. By accident, Lester becomes the stay-at-home mom and Eva becomes the wage earner.

There’s no doubt everyone in the household is financially and emotionally better off as a result of the switch. It is also clear, however, that those gains come at a significant moral cost that the family may regret in the future.

Cover of The Home-MakerEach of these insightful novels is worth reading. So Big and The Home-Maker are written in very accessible styles. The Midlander requires a bit more mental work, but it’s not difficult reading.

To understand what’s happening in The Little French Girl demands full concentration and either a French dictionary or a reading knowledge of French. Readers who give it a chance will find it worth the effort.

The Home-Maker Ahead of Its Time and Possibly of Ours

Cover of The Home-Maker by Dorothy CanfieldAs Dorothy Canfield’s novel The Home-Maker opens, Eva Knapp is scrubbing the kitchen floor, seething at the price of cleaning powder and the ingratitude of her family for not appreciating  her hard work.

Eva’s hatred of housework is making her and her whole family physically and emotionally ill.

Lester Knapp hates his department store bookkeeping job as much as Eva hates being home.

When Lester loses first his job and then the use of his legs, Eva uses her store experience and knowledge of people to get a sales position at the store which had fired Lester.

Lester becomes the home-maker, relishing time with the three children as much as Eva hated it. He realizes, “There was no sacrifice in the world which [Eva] would not joyfully make for her children except to live with them.”

That a man could be more nurturing than a woman is startling for 1924, and the descriptions of each parent interacts with each child are extraordinary.

Despite its unethical ending, which I’ll leave readers to discover, The Home-Maker ranks with  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on my must-read list for parents, teachers and concerned neighbors.

The Home-Maker
By Dorothy Canfield [Fisher]
NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1924
320 pages
1924 bestseller #10
My grade: A

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mistress Wilding Hews to History

Mistress Wilding is a historical romance on the standard loathing-turns-to-love pattern. What little interest there is in the novel is in the historical setting.

Rafael Sabatini sets the novel in the west of England in 1685 when the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of King Charles II, attempted to incite an insurrection he claimed was to restore Protestantism. At the time, memories were still vivid of the English Civil Wars fought,  in part, over the extent to which the Church of England would emulate elements of the Catholic mass.

Sabatini’s hero, Anthony Wilding, is a Protestant, working surreptitiously for Monmouth. The love of his life is Catholic. Her initial antagonism to Wilding is not on religious grounds, however, but because the worthless brother she adores doesn’t like him.

Sabatini’s story line hews closely to the historical facts, dragging his characters to the places where the events occurred with total disregard for their psychological credibility.

Sabatini seems to regret not having focused the novel on the men’s reactions to realizing their leader is undeniably inept and possibly a liar as well.

Readers will regret it, too.

The Mistress Wilding he delivered is a yawn.

Mistress Wilding
by Rafael Sabatini
1924 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg e-book #1457

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Coast of Folly Explores the “Compulsion of Failure”

Jelly fish washed up on sandy beach
“Directionless and flabby. Jellyfish washed up on the coast of folly.”

Coningsby Dawson’s The Coast of Folly explores a real but rarely discussed individual and social problem: the extent to which individuals are responsible not only for their behavior but for the impression their behavior is likely to give others.

Dawson sets the story when America was reeling from the social upheavals caused by World War I and drowning its disillusionment in bootleg liquor.

All summer, unattached Joyce Gathway’s too-rich-to-work friends have paired her with Larry Fay whose wife has begun divorce proceedings against him. Their relationship has remained open and friendly, but both know it could easily descend into a sexual affair.

When a gossip columnist suggests Joyce will be named as co-respondent in the divorce, she is forced to acknowledge that the appearance of immorality is destructive even among her peers who speak of conventional morality with disdain.  Her grandfather says people like Joyce aren’t deliberately wicked, “merely directionless and flabby. Jellyfish washed up on the coast of folly.”

The novel follows Joy’s attempts to see whether her behavior was wrong and how to repair the damage she’s done. Dawson calls this  “the compulsion of failure.”

Although The Coast of Folly is dated in many ways and the plot overtly contrived, the questions Joyce has to answer are questions all young adults need to answer for themselves.

The Coast of Folly
By Coningsby Dawson
Grossett & Dunlap, 1924
341 pages
1924 bestseller #8
My grade: B+
 

Still photos from the 1925 movie version of the novel here suggest some of the ways the novel appears dated today.

Photo credit: “Jelly Fish” by Liessel

©2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Midlander Draws Plot From Characters

In The Midlander*, Booth Tarkington creates a set of distinctive characters whose behavior weaves a plot that feels inevitable.

From childhood, the Oliphant brothers are uncongenial. Harlan Oliphant is an aloof aristocrat, respectable and responsible; his younger brother, Dan, is a rumpled democrat, popular and aimless.

Tarkington embeds the Oliphant brothers’ story in the setting of the rise of America’s great manufacturing cities in the two decades before World War I.

Harlan falls for the girl next door; Martha cares only for Dan, who considers her just a good pal.

When Dan chooses a city girl instead of Martha, his grandmother changes her will in favor of Harlan, whom she dislikes, rather than let Dan waste her fortune.

Dan impulsively becomes a real estate developer, planning to make a fortune in 10 years or so when Midland would have grown big enough to reach his Ornaby Addition.

Dan’s wife, Lena, makes no attempt to fit in with his plans. She is bitterly jealous of Martha.

Dan never wavers from his vision, never grows beyond his 20-year-old self as everyone else around him changes in more or less subtle ways.

Despite the novel’s complexity, Tarkington’s lean prose here makes The Midlander both entertaining and rewarding reading.


*Tarkington published the first edition of The Midlander in 1924, wrapping up a set of three novels which he brought out in a single volume under the name Growth in 1927. In Growth, Tarkington changed the name The Midlander to National Avenue. National Avenue appears as the final work in that volume. The other novels in the trilogy are The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and The Turmoil (1915)


The Midlander*
By Booth Tarkington
Pages 591-887 of Growth
1924 bestseller #7
My grade: A-

©2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Call of the Canyon Fails at Last Minute

The Call of the Canyon starts out looking the standard western romance. Then Zane Grey gets caught up in the lives of his characters. Instead of finding romance, the novel’s leading lady finds herself. Pigs

Thunderation.

Carley Burch, 26, a young woman of Jazz Age Manhattan is engaged to Glenn Kilborne. Gassed and shell-shocked in France, Glenn has gone to Arizona recover. The war affected something more than just Glenn’s body.

A year later, Carley pays Glenn a surprise visit, intending to bring him home. She finds him recovered physically, raising hogs, determined never to go back East.

Dangnabbit.

Carley is sure Glenn loves her, but he admires a local girl who returns his admiration. Carley decides to show Glenn she can take western hardships as uncomplainingly as Flo does.

As always, Grey’s scene descriptions are vivid and poetic. Grey does an unusually good job developing Carley’s character. He draws the lecherous Haze Ruff perfectly in a few lines. The other characters are flat.

Let me give you a hunch: If only Grey had learned from Carley’s experience, the novel could have been wonderful. On the verge of letting the novel go to its logical conclusion, Grey jerks back into comfort of familiar formulas.

Now, don’t that take the rag off the bush?

The Call of the Canyon
By Zane Grey
1924 bestselleter # 6
Project Gutenberg ebook #1881
My grade: B-

Photo credit: Pigs by Btenow

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Gentleman of Courage Has Few Other Good Points

James Oliver Curwood’s A Gentleman of Courage is the love story of two youngsters who are informally adopted by the residents of a community on an inlet off Lake Superior.
Peter and Mona
The boy, Peter MacRae, is the son of a man wanted for murder. He sends Peter to a friend who owns the lumber mill at Five Fingers before disappearing.

Entering Five Fingers, Peter sees orphan Mona Guyon being molested. Although Aleck Curry is older and stronger than he, Peter rushes to her assistance, winning her everlasting devotion.

Peter is required to prove his courage several more times before the novel ends.

Peter and Mona are planning their wedding when Donald MacRae returns, weak and ill but longing for sight of his son. The police, led by Aleck Curry, are on his trail.

Curwood has difficulty making the children’s behavior fit both their ages and the plot. Either they appear way too old or way too young.

He draws other characters with such broad strokes they appear as caricatures. Fortunately Curwood includes enough action that the underdeveloped characters are not obvious until the book’s end.

The novel is good enough to keep readers turning pages, but not good enough to make them remember what they read a week later.

Peter returns to Five Fingers
Five Fingers greets Peter on his return after the forest fire.
A Gentleman of Courage: A Novel of the Wilderness
By James Oliver Curwood
Illustrations from original paintings by Robert W. Stewart
Cosmopolitan Book Corp., 1924
1924 bestseller #5
My grade: B-
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Heirs Apparent Inherit Values Plus Education

The Heirs Apparent by Phillip Gibbs twines two heart-felt cries of British fiction of the ’20s and ’30s: “Nothing’s been the same since the war,” and “young people today only want to have fun.”

The basic plot is a familiar one. Julian Perryam leaves Oxford without taking his degree just before he can be expelled after a night in which he and friends drank too much and got back after hours. Julian’s friend Audrey Nye, daughter of a vicar, is sent down.

After years of hobnobbing with rich kids who don’t need to work or for whom a career is assured by their parents’ connections, the ex-scholars find themselves having to work for a living — a task for which Oxford has not prepared them — in a of high unemployment.

Julian and Audrey spout the slogans of their peers but secretly are as conventional as their parents. Living at home again, they realize how much their families sacrificed for them.

Gibbs enriches his romance with sprinkling of sarcasm that mature readers will feel the young idealists’ selfcenteredness warrants.

Julian and Audrey rise to the challenge in 1924. Whether they will bring up their children according to their slogans or according to their principles is open to speculation.

The Heirs Apparent
By Phillip Gibbs
Grosset & Dunlap, 1924
375 pages
1924 bestseller #4
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda GortonAragoni

The Little French Girl Is Exquisitely Bi-cultural

Jacket of novel The Little French Girl
The Little French Girl is a novel that needs to be peeled, layer by layer, like a sweet onion. Reading it requires alertness and either some French or a good French dictionary.

The story opens with Alix Vervier being met at Victoria Station by Giles Owen. Madame Vervier, presuming on a war-time acquaintance with Giles’ deceased brother, has sent Alix to England to find a suitable marriage partner.

At 15, Alix has childish innocence at odds with her acute perceptivity. She immediately likes Giles and the late Capt. Owen’s fiancée, Topee.

The rest of the noisy, sports crazy Owen family take some getting used to.

The novel follows Alix as she tries to be an obedient French daughter without offending her English hosts who find the idea of a parent arranging a child’s marriage unthinkable.

A summary can’t do this exquisite, lavendar-gray novel justice. Anne Douglas Sedgwick makes Alix’s growth from precocious teen to sensitive adult unfold as naturally as a flower coming into bloom, even though the growth process is painful for Alix, her French family, and her English hosts.

The Little French Girl
By Anne Douglas Sedgwick
Grosset & Dunlap, 1924
508 pages
1924 bestseller #3
My grade: A-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni