It conveys all the “keep calm and carry on” spirit of World War II era Britain’s upper middle class — which, I think, is a good attitude with which to begin a year.
One of my favorite chapters in the book, the chapter I think of as particularly appropriate for New Year’s Day reading, is titled “The New Engagement Book.”
An engagement book is the most important of all those small adjuncts to life, that tribe of humble familiars which jog along beside one from year’s end to year’s end, apparently trivial, but momentous by reason of their terrible intimacy.
In a spasm of post-Christmas economy, she had once bought a very cheap engagement book, and it had annoyed her for twelve months; everything she put down in it looked squalid.
I know exactly how Mrs. Minever felt. I’m very choosy when it comes to my annual planner.
The 1940 novel isn’t yet in the public domain, so it’s not available at Project Gutenberg. There was a 50-year anniversary reprint. I suspect there are not many copies of the original printing still around. Paper quality during World War II was poor; My copy is yellow and brittle.
Of the bestsellers from 1940, the only ones familiar to today’s readers are by iconic American writers Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Hemingway’s novel is the better book; Steinbeck’s the more memorable: it was on the bestseller list two years running.
Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tollsis a war story told from the perspective of weary guerrilla fighters. Although the novel is set in Spain in the 1930s, the story could just as well be about an insurgency anywhere in the world in 2010.
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a propaganda piece about America’s working poor displaced by the dust bowls and economic upheaval of the Great Depression. The novel elicits an orgy of compassion that ends with emotionally exhausted readers feeling they’ve been manipulated.
Several other novels on the 1940 bestseller list deserve a resurrection. Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, The Family by Nina Fedorova, Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield, and Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley (another novel on the bestseller list two years in a row) are readable second-rate novels relevant to contemporary readers.
If you find any of these in a yard sale or Salvation Army store, pick it up. It will be well worth the investment.
A Russian family, “ex-big, ex-great, ex-prosperous” has dwindled to five members living in Tientsin, China in 1937. They operate a boarding house whose rooms they rent to a rag-tag assortment of people of various nationalities whose lives are defined in terms of what they no longer have.
The family is loving, interested in life, and hopeful for the future.
Before long, the Japanese invade China and the family’s already precarious financial situation becomes dire.
Mother has to let the young people leave: Lida to become an American war bride, Dima to be adopted by a lonely English woman, Peter to be smuggled back into Russia. As the biological family scatters, Mother loves the boarders into becoming a family.
Nina Fedorova’s fluid prose will be welcomed by anyone put off by the dense, turgid paragraphs that mark most Russian works. She writes with wit, and sensitivity about the struggles of people whose lives consist mainly of looking for work and doing without. By then end of The Family, however, her praise of strong women slips into sentimentality.
Despite that sentimentality, The Family remains an eye-opening glimpse of the lives of people without passports in a hostile world.
by Nina Fedorova
Little, Brown, 1940
My grade: B+
In Night in Bombay, novelist Louis Bromfield plunges readers into 1930’s India, submerges them in its sounds and smells, and holds them until the subcontinent beats in their pulses.
Bill Wainwright is in Bombay on business when he runs into his ex-wife, Carol, a gorgeous blonde living off a string of suitors. She mentions meeting a missionary on the train. From her description, Bill knows it’s his former Cornell roommate, Buck Merrill.
Tropical diseases, hard work, and his frigid late wife have debilitated Buck. Influential Indians want him well enough to continue his work helping rural Indians become self-sufficient. Bill suggests Buck enjoy a vacation at the Taj Mahal Hotel where he and Carol are staying.
Buck and Carol fall for each other, and Bill realizes that he loved Carol all along.
If this novel has a fault, it’s that the exotic locale and seemingly stereotypical characters mislead readers into expecting fluff. Bromfield doesn’t do fluff. In Night in Bombay, he takes the “beauty is only skin deep” cliché and twists it into more variations than a Rubic’s cube.
Take time to savor the sensual richness and complex characters of this cinemagraphic novel. It’s as exotic as a vacation to the Far East.
Night in Bombay
By Louis Bromfield
Grosset & Dunlap, 1940
1940 Bestseller # 9
Stars on the Sea is F. van Wyck Mason’s novelized account of how American got its Navy.
Tim Bennett, son of a prosperous Newport merchant, takes lunar leave from the army defending Boston at the urging of his fiancé, Lucy. He’s just getting home when Redcoats burn Newport, beggaring the family. In the skirmish, Tim’s sister’s Redcoat lover is killed and her affair made public. Desire flees Newport to live as best a beautiful teenage girl can on her own.
Lucy’s family hustle her off so she won’t marry Tim. He takes off to the Bahamas in hopes of getting letters of marque and using one of his father’s ships there to restore the family fortune—and harrass the British.
Van Wyck Mason falls into the trap that catches so many historical novelists: he puts in too much history. In fact-dense fashion, he tries to show maritime events from Maine to Trinidad. The result is a tenuous patchwork of events, people, places.
That patchwork quality is the novel’s salvation. The characters are too sketchy, the plot too dependent on coincidence for the story to withstand concentrated attention on any one character.
Stars on the Sea
By F. van Wyck Mason
J. B. Lippincott, 1940
My grade: C
In Oliver Wiswell, Kenneth Roberts explores history from Bunker Hill to Yorktown from the perspective of a Loyalist historian who views the revolution as “the American Civil War.”
Oliver Wiswell rescues Tom Buell from a mob of the Sons of Liberty who turn the pair and Oliver’s dying father from their Massachusetts home.
Oliver and Tom wind up as British spies. Their spying takes them to England and France, but Oliver never forgets the girl he left in Massachusetts.
Later Oliver and Tom go back to the colonies to see what’s happening to the Loyalists. The two are in New York when Cornwallis surrenders to Washington.
Afterward, the Loyalists have to flee. Some go south to the Caribbean. Oliver and Tom lead an emigration to Canada.
This novel’s historical detail is more interesting than either its plot or its fictional characters. Roberts makes the usual points about both sides in a war being bad, equally disillusioned, equally disgusted by incompetent leadership.
Where the novel shines, however, is in showing how both rebels and loyalists were insulted by British criticism of Americans. Perhaps if American diplomats were to read Oliver Wiswell, they’d have better insight into contemporary events in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, and Java.
By Kenneth Roberts
Doubleday, Doran, 1940
1940 Bestseller #7
My Grade: B
Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a gripping and thought-provoking look at war from the perspective of guerrilla fighters worn down by years of sniping.
The novel is about Robert Jordan, an American fighting with the Communist International Brigades against fascists in Spain in the 1930s. The freedom fighters are a handful of men and two women who have lost homes and families in the civil war.
Jordan is ordered to rally local freedom fighters to blow up a mountain bridge, timing the blast to cut off reinforcements when the communist attack elsewhere. Jordan blows the bridge, but his superiors bundle the operation.
The novel’s plot feels familiar. You can easily imagine Tom Hanks playing Jordan. What isn’t familiar is the perspective.
The guerrillas aren’t sainted freedom fighters. Some who believed in The Cause are disillusioned. Some enjoy killing. Some seek power. Some have nothing else to do.
Hemingway’s prose is straightforward but not sparse. He shows the swiftness of death, the malingering memories of killing and violence. His characters relive what they cannot forget, looking for absolution.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is worth rereading in a day when a half-dozen civil wars fester an almost every continent.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
#4 on the 1940 bestseller list
#5 on the 1941 bestseller list
My grade: A
Here is Mrs. Miniver musing about the atrocities against the Jews as World War II rages across the channel:
However long the horror continued, once must not get to the stage of refusing to think about it. To shrink from direct pain was bad enough, but to shrink from vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice. And whereas to conceal direct pain was a virtue, to conceal vicarious pain was a sin. Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter—people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief.