We Are Not Alone Quirky Novella with Cinematic Appeal

James Hilton’s We Are Not Alone is so British and so visual that reading it is like watching Masterpiece Theatre in your mind.

The story revolves around a harmless eccentric, David Newcome, “the little doctor” of Calderbury. Newcome is a brilliant surgeon with a childlike humility, honesty (he actually admits to now knowing everything!), and genuine concern for people. Newcome and his wife, Jessica, have little in common, except their son, Gerald, a timid boy who, depending on your point of view, has a vivid imagination or is an inveterate liar.

The doctor is called to treat a young German dancer who attempts suicide after a broken wrist prevents her from making her living. Newcome discovers Leni likes children and suggests his wife hire her to look after Gerald.

Jessica learns Leni had attempted suicide and starts wondering what else her husband hasn’t mentioned. She fires Leni just as war breaks out between England and Germany. Germans are no longer welcome in England. Newcome tries to get Leni back to Germany, but while they are on the way to the coast, Jessica is found poisoned.

Newcome and Leni die for the murder, but did they do it?

We Are Not Alone is quirky and intriguing. Its novella-length makes it a comfortable evening’s entertainment.

We Are Not Alone
By James Hilton
Little, Brown, 1937
231 pages
# 10 on 1937 bestseller list
grade B
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Rains Came Puts Human Face on Flood Footage

I was reading The Rains Came as TV news showed floods in the US, Brazil, and China that left thousands homeless. None of those pictures moved me as deeply as Louis Bromfield’s 70-year-old novel about a flood in India.

Indians and a motley collection of British are sweating in Ranchipur, waiting for the monsoons to bring relief from the heat, when Lord Esketh arrives with his bored trophy wife, Edwina. They have hardly unpacked when the rains come.

Rivers and streams rise. Then an earthquake breeches a dam above Ranchipur. Most of the city is swept away. The Maharini’s government mobilizes, calling on foreign residents they trust to help.

As the upper crust ex-pats roll up their sleeves, they surprise themselves. Edwina volunteers at the hospital where she can be near the sexy Indian doctor, Major Safti, and finds she can be useful. Fern Simon changes in a week from a self-centered teenager to a responsible woman and shows alcoholic-in-training Tom Ransome that he’s not as emotionally desiccated as he thought.

Bromfield tells how the “miserable people passing . . . one by one, quarreling and reviling each other in their haste and horror, became human” to Ransome. And Bromfield makes them human to readers, too.

The Rains Came: A Novel of Modern India
By Louis Bromfield
Harper & Brothers, 1937
597 pages
#9 on the 1937 bestseller list
My grade: A-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Of Mice and Men: Mouse-size novel probes man-size theme

Of Mice and Men is a perennial on high school reading lists; it is short, easy reading, well-plotted, and gruesome. It’s theme, however, is anything but adolescent.

George Milton and Lennie Small are itinerant farm laborers. George does the thinking for both of them. Unaware of his own strength, big, dumb Lennie has to be be watched constantly or his fondness for soft, silky things gets him and George into trouble.

The pair arrives at a remote ranch for harvest. The boss’s son has recently married a good-looking slut with a wandering eye. Her presence has everyone in the bunkhouse wishing for something to call his own. They see that George cares for Lennie as if he were family. Before long the other hands are asking George if they can’t join him and Lennie on the place they plan to buy where they can “live on the fatta the lan’ and have rabbits.”

The story’s climax is both shocking and inevitable.

John Steinbeck’s characterization rings true as well. The bunkhouse crew are losers. As individuals, they are totally forgettable.

When you close the covers of the novel, all you’re left with is the knowledge that sometimes love carries an awful responsibility.

Of Mice and Men
By John Steinbeck
#8 on the 1937 bestseller list
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Theatre Is a Class Act

Red Stage Curtain
Theatre: A Novel starts out as superficial as Entertainment Today but segues at the last minute to an analysis of the role of the arts in life. Incredibly, W. Somerset Maugham makes the thing work.

Acting is Julia Gosselyn’s career and her life. She studies people and events constantly to enrich her performances. Even as she engages in ordinary activities, she’s conscious of how she’s appearing to others.

Her husband, a poor actor but brilliant theater manager, adores her. He brings out her best on stage and bores her at home. She’s faithful to him, though people assume she’s had a lover for years.

At mid-life, Julia’s disciplined life turns topsy-turvy when she falls for a man only a few years older than her son. That son triggers Julia’s examination of her life.

Julia finds her work matters. As for sex, well, it can be fun, but it’s not nearly as enchanting as a steak with onions and fries.

Maugham ties things together so adroitly that the novel’s ending seems inevitable. He makes you understand that art must reveal life without being life.

Theatre is easy reading, the sex is all off-stage, and readers end up understanding a bit about why theater matters.

What’s not to like?

Theatre: A Novel
By W. Somerset Maugham
Literary Guild, 1937
292 pages
1937 bestseller #7
My Grade: B

Photo credit: Stage Curtain (Red) by Dominik Gwarek

©2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Years Not Kind to Woolf’s Readers

In The Years, Virginia Woolf lifts the curtain on one English family over a 50-year period.Woolf’s novel isn’t a story in the conventional sense. It’s a collection of episodes, like pieces of a drama. There’s little description of people or settings. No one character predominates. Readers have to figure out who is who before they can figure out what is going on.

When the book opens, it’s 1880 and the Pargiters of Abercorn Terrace are waiting for the Mrs. Pargiter to die. She’s been an invalid so long, her death is a relief to her husband and children.

Woolf pops in on the family periodically over the years. Several of the children marry and have children of their own. The family home is put up for sale. The long-time housemaid is dismissed. The unmarried Pargiter children become poorer and more eccentric.

The Years is not a book to read when you are recovering from the flu. It’s a book that requires all your concentration, and maybe even a notepad to keep the characters straight. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t warrant the effort. Woolf’s genius is evident, but the novel fails to make her characters or their world come alive for readers.

The Years
By Virginia Woolf
Harcourt, Brace 1937
435 pages
#6 on the 1937 bestseller list
My grade: C+

 

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

History Steps Lively to Drums Along the Mohawk

Drums Along the Mohawk is an historical novel of New York’s Mohawk Valley during the Revolution.

In 1776, Gilbert Martin and his bride, Lana, set up their new frontier home in the Mohawk Valley west of Schenectady. British troops and their Indian allies attack repeatedly, wiping out settlements, taking scalps, leaving survivors to starve. Gil and Lana lose a baby as their farm goes up in smoke.

Unable to farm his land, Gil takes over running a wealthy widow’s farm. Even her wealth is no defense against the enemy’s scorched-earth policies.

Congress compounds the settlers’ misery by imposing taxes, issuing worthless currency, and paying the militia poorly, if at all.

Faced with starvation, the farmers fight back.

Drums Along the Mohawk is an easy way to get a grasp of the Revolution as seen from the man-in-the-field perspective. Walter D. Edmonds drew heavily on contemporary documents, inventing only the major characters to tie the facts together.

Edmonds accuracy is both bane and blessing. As long as he keeps his focus on Gil and Lana, the story is compelling. When he shifts focus away from them to national politics, the novel implodes. We’re left with just a pile of historical notes.

Drums Along the Mohawk
By Walter D. Edmonds
Little, Brown, 1936
592 pages
#5 on the 1937 bestseller list
My grade: B
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nothing So-So About And So—Victoria

In And So—Victoria, Vaughan Wilkins packs more “I’ll go to bed after the next chapter” between two covers than a half dozen Gone with the Winds.

The story centers on Christopher Harnish whose disgust with the depravity of the Hanoverian kings of England helps put a woman—Queen Victoria—on the throne.

Before Christopher is 11, the gentle lad has twice been accused of murder—and once sentenced to hang for it. After that excitement, he lives a relatively uneventful life until he turns 19. Then he’s goes to Germany to learn soldiering in small state whose duchess is a daughter of the English King George III.

Christopher picks up enough hints to know there’s something odd about his parentage. When he learns that his mother had married the son of her illegitimate half brother, Christopher renounces his English connections and assumes a German name. While trying to escape his past, he smashes into it headlong. This time, however, he fights back—and wins.

Wilkins weaves together history, mystery, romance, murder, thrills, and suspense—and he handles each thread deftly. A genealogical chart helps readers unfamiliar with English history to keep the historical characters straight. Wilkins makes the invented characters sufficiently distinctive you’d know them anywhere.

And So—Victoria
By Vaughan Wilkins
Macmillan, 1937
618 pages
#4 on the 1937 bestseller list
My grade: A
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Citadel Is Built of Saccharine and Clichés

The Citadel is a moderately entertaining tale about an idealistic young doctor who almost wrecks his life trying to get rich quick.

Andrew Manson starts his medical practice in a Welch coal-mining village. He quickly realizes his medical training was both inadequate and often blatantly wrong. He also falls in love and weds the village teacher.

Andrew finds medicine has more quacks than skilled professionals. He sees the quacks making money and tries their tactics with great success until one of those quacks botches a simple surgery and lets Andrew’s patient die.

Trained as a doctor, author A. J. Cronin spins his tale with the sureness of someone who knows the field. That knowledge helps conceal the weak plot, though it can’t do anything about Cronin’s ham-fisted foreshadowing.

Also, Cronin is less than adept at developing characters. Cronin tells instead of showing what makes his people tick. It’s not clear, for example, what triggers dramatic Andrew’s plunge into pursuit of wealth.

The Citadel comes off as cliché-ridden and saccharine, but things could be worse. About 20 years later, Morton Thompson will a very similar story, add an ample dose of sex, and turn it into a longer, duller book.

The Citadel
By A. J. Cronin
Grossett & Dunlap, 1938
401 pages
#3 on the 1937 and #2 on the 1938 bestseller lists
My grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Northwest Passage Is Half Good Reading

Northwest Passage is a super novel about the French and Indian Wars and a not-very good novel about political espionage, both between one set of covers.

Langdon Towne finds it wise to leave his native Portsmouth in 1759 when some of the King’s officials overhear his remarks about them. He joins Major Rogers, the greatest of the Indian fighters, in an expedition to wipe an enemy village northeast of Montreal. Kenneth Robert’s makes that tale jump off the page in technicolor and surround sound. I couldn’t put the book down until the survivors got back home. Like Towne, I admired Rogers leadership and was willing to overlook his flaws.

What happens after the St. Francis expedition is another story. The second tale is splintered and murky. Towne signs on to go with Rogers to find a Northwest Passage from the Great Lakes to the Pacific. Rogers never goes. He ends up in a Fleet Street prison in London.

Few novelists can match Roberts’ skill with an adventure story, but political intrigue isn’t his forté.

I recommend you read book I of Northwest Passage, and skip book II unless you are more interested in Revolutionary War history than in a good yarn.

Northwest Passage
By Kenneth Roberts
Doubleday, 1937
734 pages
#2 on the 1937 and #5 on the 1938 bestseller lists
My grade: C

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Gone with the Wind, But Not Forgotten or Forgettable

Who doesn’t know the plot of Gone with the Wind?

At 16, Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled, selfish, headstrong daughter of a wealthy plantation owner is passionately in love with Ashley Wilkes, a refined, scholarly man with no passion at all. It takes the Civil War, Reconstruction and her third husband, Rhett Butler, to make her realize Ashley was never the man for her.

Margaret Mitchell has an organic approach to character development. She introduces each character’s general tendencies and then grows them situation by situation.

For example, any time she’s faced with an unpleasant situation, Scarlett says, “I think of it tomorrow.” Any time she’s in trouble, she runs home to Tara. So, when Rhett walks out, her response is totally characteristic.

Most of what I remembered of Gone with the Wind was from the movie: the burning of Atlanta, ripping down curtains to make a new dress. However, Margaret Mitchell’s novel is far more than a collection of vivid scenes and characters.

Mitchell’s prose flows. She varies her paragraph lengths so reading is easy. There is lots of dialogue. Despite the book’s whopping length, I read it easily in a day.

This well-written classic deserved the Pulitzer it won.

Gone with the Wind
by Margaret Mitchell
MacMillan, 1936
1037 pages
#1 on the 1936 bestseller list
#1 on the 1937 bestseller list
Pulitzer Prize winner
My grade: A
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni