The most important of the 1933 bestsellers has to be Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? Fallada shows in very human terms how the subjugation of Germany after World War I laid the foundation for World War II. His characters are ordinary men and women caught in an economic quicksand that pulls them apart while it pulls them down.
As much as I admire Fallada’s work, I have to admit I don’t like it much. It’s too bleak, too horrifying to be pleasant reading, and Fallada manages to suggest that what happened once could happen again. That’s a terrifying thought.
John Galsworthy’s One More River is a less important book than Fallada’s, but one with substance and durability. While Fallada focuses on the lower ranks of German post-war society, Galsworthy focuses on the British gentry of the period. Although far from wealthy, the Charwells worry about how to live loving and honorable lives rather than about where their next meal will come from. Galsworthy’s novel isn’t as bleak as Fallada’s, but it, too, has a sadness beneath the British reluctance to accept pity even from one’s self.
By contrast to these two substantive novels, my third pick is a lightweight. Bess Streeter Aldrich’s Miss Bishop is soppy and sentimental and endearingly silly. Miss Bishop is the sort of novel that elicits tears not because it’s so good, but because it’s not true.
Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? is a good novel in good times. In an economic downturn, it’s absolutely chilling.
Pinneberg does the right thing by his pregnant girlfriend, Bunny. His salary as a clerk barely covers his own needs, and setting up housekeeping is far more expensive than either had expected. Pinneberg assures Bunny that a baby is almost no expense in the first year; they’ll manage.
Bunny, a sweet girl with no practical skills, learns to cook, to make do. She finds them an attic apartment, cheap because it’s accessible only by ladder and operating outside the law.
Then Pinneberg loses his job. He finds another selling clothes on commission. When the company imposes quotas, he is out of a job again and on the dole. An acquaintance lets them rent a shed on small country property he owns. They would be destitute except for what Bunny earns doing mending.
Bunny refuses to let Pinneberg steal wood for fuel.
“He must keep his self-respect,” she tells her father-in-law. “It’s our only luxury, we must stick to it.”
Fallada’s matter-of-factness makes the misery and courage of this young couple both inspirational and terrifying.
Put Little Man What Now? on your must-read list.
Little Man, What Now?
By Hans Fallada
Simon and Schuster, 1933
Trans. From the German by Eric Sutton
My grade; A
Based in part on author Louis Bromfield’s own family history, The Farm is an unsatisfactory novel. Crowded with characters and brimming with anecdotes, many of which seem worthy of being turned into a novel, the book doesn’t succeed in melding them into more than the sum of its parts.
The story begins in 1815. Colonel MacDougal a Maryland aristocrat “sick of dishonesty and corruption and intolerance and all the meanness of civilization and of man himself ” arrives in Ohio to establish a farm and a new life.
As the Colonel arrives a Jesuit priest leaves, marking the end of the French missionary work among the Native Americans, and a Massachusetts peddler arrives, marking the start of the commercialization of rural America.
Bromfield uses the memories and experiences of one of the Colonel’s great grandsons, Johnny, to thread together the story of the rise of towns and decline of farms up to World War I. Unfortunately, Johnny never really comes alive as a person. He’s just a device.
Bromfield’s real hero is the farm itself, and even that is largely symbolic. Johnny’s grandfather explained its importance:
Some day…there will come a reckoning and the country will discover that farmers are more necessary than traveling salesmen, that no nation can exist or have any solidity which ignores the land. But it will cost the country dear. There’ll be hell to pay before they find it out.
The Farm is worth reading for social history and cultural perspective, but it’s not worth reading today as a novel.
By Louis Bromfield
Illus. Kate Lord
Introduction by Winfield H. Rogers
Harper & Brothers, 1946
1933 bestseller #9
My grade: C+
As long as you don’t expect anything but pleasant diversion, Bess Streeter Aldrich’s classic Miss Bishop won’t disappoint you.
When Ella Bishop enrolls in the first class at Midwestern College in 1876, she has two dresses, an extroverted personality, and boundless enthusiasm for wholesome activities.
After graduating, Ella stays on to teach grammar until she marries. But Ella never marries. Instead, she devotes her life to family, friends, and students.
With extraordinary strength, Ella resists the temptation of an affair with a colleague, tenderly cares for her widowed mother who can’t even complete a sentence by herself, and practically adopts the lover who jilted her.
We all know someone who has done things just as extraordinary, but no real person would have those kinds of experiences and not be changed by them. Ella, however, never grows. She’s as mature at 60 as she was at 16. In her entire lifetime, the only thing that changes about Ella is her hair color.
Although sappily sentimental, Miss Bishop is so well constructed and Ella herself such a lovely person that you probably won’t want to put this novel down. And you might even blow your nose loudly once or twice as you read.
By Bess Streeter Aldrich
My grade: C+
Renny Whiteoak inherited Jalna and responsibility for the family when his grandmother died in 1927. Right up until her death at age 102, family stayed on the farm and under her thumb.
Renny would like to be a dictator like his grandmother. He’s got the temperament for it, and no morals to prevent it. But the 1930s offer restless family members more opportunities for escape than his grandmother’s day held. And the world doesn’t seem to share Renny’s belief that Jalna is sovereign territory.
Renny’s half-brother, Eden, (who also happens to be Renny’s wife’s first husband) comes home to die.
Renny’s two uncles go into a decline when Eden dies.
Rennys brother-in-law is selling off lots in adjacent property to city people.
And Renny is broke. He won’t pay his bills, but he’ll lie and cheat to get money to keep Jalna intact and all the family living out their sordid lives under Jalna’s roof.
If Mazo de la Roche told the story through one character’s perspective, the novel might be worth reading. However, the ever-shifting point of view gives only a recital of miseries.
Most miserable of all are readers who pick up this highly overrated novel.
The Master of Jalna
by Mazo de la Roche
Little, Brown, 1943
My grade D+
As a child, Dinny Brumm refuses to take anything from his father. His Aunt Martha and Uncle Miles tell him his father, whom he’s never seen, deserted his mother. They lead him to believe his father cares nothing for him.
In his hatred of his father, Dinny even takes their name lest he be linked to his father, newspaper magnate Zandy Craig.
Dinny finds a letter his dying mother wrote to him before he was born. It tells of her love for his father and how she found peace through forgiving those who had hurt her.
Dinny decides to see if forgiving others will help him feel better and win the woman he loves.
The plot is contrived, the main characters emotionally implausible. Douglas creates situations that he quickly drops, such as Dinny’s half-sister’s attempt to seduce him.
Although Forgive Us Our Trespasses is tinged with religiosity, author Lloyd C. Douglas stays far away from religion. He explores forgiveness as a tool for psychological health.
Despite the novel’s tacked-on happy ending, the only characters who seem likely to have any lasting happiness are Dinny’s aunt and uncle, who, despite their shortcomings, seem to have some genuine faith in something besides themselves.
Forgive Us Our Trespasses
by Lloyd C. Douglas
Grosset & Dunlap, 1932
1933 bestseller #6
My grade C-
One More River is a poignant period piece about durable people and enduring values. The ninth and final novel in John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Chronicles, One More River has less bite than the earlier novels.
The story swirls around the divorce action Sir Gerald Corven brings against his wife, Clare, and a young man who fell in love with her as she fled her husband. Coming from a family that loathes publicity, Clare refuses to explain even to them that Corven is a sadist, leaving her sister, Dinny, to handle the unpleasant details.
Dinny has experience with unpleasant details. She’s still aching from losing her lover to a public scandal, but she nonetheless exerts herself to soothe and support her family.
Although all the Charwells rally around Clare, it’s Dinny they most care about. They want to see her married, and even select a suitable man, Eustace Dornford. After Dinny learns that her lover has drowned in Siam, she begins to see the family is right.
Galsworthy’s people are ladies and gentlemen. Clare aside, the characters are not vivid, but durable. Seeing them, readers can understand why tiny England was able to command an empire on which the sun never set.
One More River
By John Galsworthy,
Charles Scribner’s, 1933
My grade: A
Ann Vickers is Sinclair Lewis’s fictional exposé of the American prison system of the 1920s, a system riddled with corruption, brutality, and stupidity.
Ann Vickers is a bright, bossy child who grows up to be a bright, bossy woman. After college she stuffs envelopes for the women’s suffrage movement. An unfortunate mistake lands her in jail and sets her on a career in prison administration and penal reform.
While Ann’s professional career prospers, her personal life stagnates. She can’t find a man that meets her standards. Her first love affair ends in the abortion of a child whose loss she mourns the rest of her life.
Recoiling from the desertion of a male friend she would gladly have married, Ann marries a fellow social worker only to discover he has all the male flaws she despises. She turns from him to a sexy judge, standing by him even when he’s found guilty of corruption and sentenced to five years in prison.
Lewis skips lightly over Ann’s idiotic behavior, reserving his barbs for the world that birthed people who would make his heroine unhappy. That sloppy sentimentality keeps Ann Vickers from being a great novel or great social criticism.
By Sinclair Lewis
Doubleday, Doran, 1933
My grade B-
As The Earth Turns is a homely novel: a picture of a year in the life of a Maine farm family in the early years of the Great Depression.
The Shaws are a next-century version of the Ingalls and Wilder families profiled in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books: solid, hardworking, reliable.
Mark Shaw has farmed all his life; he doesn’t know or care to know any other place. His daughter Jen and three of his boys have a heart for farming. The others seek excitement off the land.
Since before her mother’s death ten years before Jen has run the house. She neither asks nor receives significant aid or interference from her father’s second wife.
Jen’s life is cooking, cleaning, and caring for others. She wants nothing else. She copes with life’s crises—a croupy baby or fatal accident—and the attentions of the handsome Polish immigrant farmer with equal calm.
Gladys Hasty Carroll relates the story with the dispassion of a visitor reading the family record scribbled on the calendar by the back door.
The Shaws would be great neighbors, but they aren’t particularly entertaining ones.
And reading about someone else doing housework is even less exciting than doing one’s own.
As the Earth Turnsby Gladys Hasty CarrollMacMillan, 1933339 pages1933 bestseller #2