Mrs. Miniver Finds Something Good Every Day

Of all my favorite novels, Mrs. Miniver is undoubtedly the worst.

The characters are pleasant, but not memorable.

It doesn’t have a plot; Jan Struther’s chapters were originally printed as short stories in The Times of London, and they remain short stories.

The writing is good, but not brilliant.

Despite all those flaws, I usually spend New Year’s Day reading Mrs. Miniver.

The Minivers are an intelligent, cultured, fundamentally decent couple. As a second world war becomes inevitable, the household gets gas masks, the children are evacuated to safer schools, Clem joins the anti-aircraft corps, his wife signs on as an ambulance driver.

In a topsy-turvy world, the Miniver household is emotionally stable and comfortable. The Minivers don’t dwell on worst-case scenarios. They concentrate on looking for something good today to be thankful for. Even the youngest, Toby, lugging his Teddy bear as he goes to be fitted for his gas mask, finds something to chuckle about.

Without preaching, Mrs. Miniver reminds us of the debt each person owes to the world, and shows that the most ordinary human interaction can be an extraordinary blessing if we allow it to be.

Mrs. Miniver
By Jan Struther
Harcourt, Brace 1940
288 pages
My grade: B-

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Llewellyn’s Valley Is Still Springtime Fresh

Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley is a nostalgic glimpse of life in days that were at once rougher and gentler than our own.

When the story opens, narrator Huw Morgan is just a boy in a Welsh household made prosperous by the combined wages of his father and brothers who work the coal mines.

As mines everywhere shut, plentiful labor forces wages down. The Morgan household splits over attempts to unionize the mine. Miners strike, but the strike fails.

A new minister in the valley takes an interest in Huw and encourages him to go to school, where he excels. Huw refuses to go to college. He chooses life in the mine over a profession.

A series of fresh disasters strike the valley: mining accidents, a rift in the local congregation over the minister’s relationship with Huw’s sister. The valley grows bleak and barren.

Although Huw tells the story in a flashback, he tells it basically from the perspective of what he saw, felt, and understood at the age when the events happened. Llewellyn’s novel takes readers into an interior world the classic film version of the novel does not capture.

Experience youth again: Read How Green Was My Valley.

How Green Was My Valley
By Richard Llewellyn
Macmillian, 1940
494 pages
1940 bestseller #1
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1940 bestselling novels

The 1940s were good years  for novels with strong protagonists and great storytelling. The decade began with these 10  topping the sales charts:

1.    How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
2.    Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley
3.    Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther
4.    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
5.    The Nazarene by Sholem Asch
6.    Stars on the Sea by  F. van Wyck
7.    Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts
8.    The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
9.   Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield
10.  The Family by Nina Fedorova

The Steinbeck and Hemingway novels are still widely read.

As popular as these novels were, they are getting difficult to find.  Originals printed on cheap, war-time paper are brown and crumbling. Let’s hope they come back as as e-books or reprints.

At least half  the novels on the list were made into films that didn’t do justice to their print origins.  The film version of Mrs. Miniver bears almost no resemblance to the book.

Grapes of Wrath Lays Sentiment on Thick

The Grapes of Wrath is a novel told from a soapbox.

Unable to keep up payments on their miserable Oklahoma farm, the Joads are forced to leave the land. Lured by handbills promising jobs, they pack 12 family members, an ex-preacher and a dog into a Hudson and set out for California.

Only eight of the Joad clan make it.

California turns out not to be the promised land. As thousands compete for harvesting jobs, wages drop. Men see their children starving. The Joads are in a bad way, but not so poor that they won’t share what little they have.

Substitute Hispanics for Oakies and much of The Grapes of Wrath will sound contemporary. The story remains gripping today because the search for a better life is timeless.

John Steinbeck alternates a chapter about the Joads with a chapter of his own take on history. He does it seamlessly, but sentimentally. The final scene of Rosasharn giving her milk to the starving man is Hollywood at its worst.

But by making the Joads the poster family for the working poor, Steinbeck trivializes the very conditions he’s trying to condemn. The working poor—and we poor readers—deserve more respect.

The Grapes of Wrath
By John Steinbeck
Viking, 1939
619  pages
1939 #1, 1940 #8
My grade: A-

© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni