Rather than post the list of 1943 bestsellers I’ve slated for review, since today is Easter on the Christian calendar, it’s perhaps appropriate to mention a novel related to the events of Holy Week.
I first reviewed The Robeby Lloyd C. Douglas on the 50th anniversary of its first appearance on the bestseller list, which was in 1942. The novel not only stayed on the list a second year, but rose from seventh place in 1942 to first place in 1943.
In 1953, The Robe made a comeback, again hitting the top spot on the bestseller list, as the film version of the novel appeared in movie theaters with Richard Burton in the role of Marcellus Gallio, the Roman centurion who presides over Christ’s crucifixion.
A novel that makes the bestseller list three years out of 11—and two of those in the number one spot—deserves rereading if for nothing more than the novelty. However, I think you’ll find the story worth your time.
The 1942 bestseller list introduced me to several novels I quickly added to my list of novels to read again—probably several times.
The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck and Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck are novels about life in occupied territory. Steinbeck sets his novel in a European town where an invading army learns that occupation is far more difficult than invasion.
Buck tells a story of Japanese-occupied China. An illiterate farmer Ling Tan and his family organize the local resistance. As they succeed in harassing the occupying enemy, Ling Tan worries about whether their facility for killing won’t ultimately destroy them.
Marguerite Steen’s The Sun Is My Undoing has a third perspective on the relationship between the conquerer and the conquered. Her whopping, great novel looks at the financial rise and personal disintegration of a British slave trader in the late 1700s.
Henry Bellamann’s King’s Row is a striking contrast to those three novels about sweeping events in history. History detours around King’s Row. All that happens in that sleepy little country town is that one man is quietly noble.
If at least one of these four novels doesn’t give you goosebumps, you should turn in your library card: your obituary will be in Friday’s paper.
A. J. Cronin’s novel The Keys of The Kingdom headed the bestseller list in 1941. It was still on the list in 1942, although it had dropped to tenth place.
The novel remains good entertainment today. It is an intriguing character study of someone who finds that fitting is definitely overrated. Keys’ lead character, Francis Chisholm, the missionary priest to China’s “rice Christians,” could probably have answered “yes” to each of Leonard Felder’s 15 self-analysis questions to determine if one is an “insightful outsider.”
A full review of the novel is included with the 1941 bestsellers.
Kings Row is the county seat of a mid-west town. At the turn of the 20th century, it was the sort of place that people found a good to raise their children. Author Henry Bellamann takes us behind the lace curtains for a different view.
Parris Mitchell’s parents are dead. His twice-widowed grandmother brings him up with old-world values. Older people dote on Parris. His peers respect Parris but find him odd.
The boy’s only real friends are Renee, a dull-witted girl whose father works for his grandmother, and Drake McHugh, whose deceased parents were among the town’s elite.
Parris is so innocent, it seems inevitable that he will be victimized.
Before her death, his grandmother pulls Parris out of public school and has him tutored privately to get him ready for medical school in Vienna. Before Parris sails for Vienna, his tutor kills his daughter and himself.
When he returns five years later, Parris has learned names for the Kings Row behaviors he only intuited before: homosexuality, incest, sadism.
Bellamann, a musician by training, orchestrates his novel. The story flows with the inevitability of a great symphony, enveloping readers into the story.
When you read Kings Row, you don’t just imagine it happening: You stand beside Parris and experience it.
Simon and Schuster, 1940
1942 Bestseller #9
My grade: A+
Public recognition of the sufferings of slaves, such as the one in “Chains” monument shown in the photo from the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris, is not common. However, novelist Margaret Steen produced something even more rare: a public recognition of the misery slavery inflicted on slave traders.
In 1942, Steen’s novel about a slave trader, The Sun Is My Undoing, made the bestseller list for a second year in a row. My review of this extraordinary novel is filed with the reviews of 1941 novels.
The Robeis Lloyd C. Douglas’s most famous novel and perhaps his best.
For insulting the emperor’s stepson, the young tribune Marcellus Gallio is sent to Minoa (Gaza). In Jerusalem on security detail, Marcellus’ unit crucifies Jesus. Marcellus wins the robe Jesus wore.
Bother Marcellus and his slave, Demetrius, are convinced Jesus was innocent. Both men become converts.
Demetrius rescues the woman Marcellus loves from the clutches of the new Emperor, Caligula, and all three head back to Rome. Diana is skeptical of Christianity, but stands by her man.
The story is far more complex and exciting than my summary suggests. Douglas weaves ancient history and Bible stories into his narrative skillfully. The ogres of Roman history appear, as do the martyrs of the early church: Peter, John, and Stephen.
Few writers can pull off a historical novel without bogging down in history. Douglas does it superbly.
However, I’m afraid even regular church-goers nowadays lack the Biblical knowledge to understand big chunks of The Robe. Without that knowledge, it’s impossible to appreciate Douglas as a storyteller.
As a rule, I don’t like religious novels and off-the-shelf characters bore me, but I enjoyed The Robe anyway. Maybe you will, too.
Lloyd C. Douglas
Houghton Mifflin, 1942
#7 in 1942, #1 in 1943
Mary Ellen Chase’s novel Windswept, about the hardy folk of the Maine coast, took sixth place on the 1942 bestseller list after ranking in tenth place when it appeared the year before. My review of the novel is included with the 1941 bestsellers.
Drivin’ Woman is a historical romance set against the backdrop of the tobacco industry.
As the Civil War ends, America “Merry” Moncure runs what’s left of her family and its plantation. Merry marries a cousin, Fant Annabel, and moves with him to Kentucky from her Virginia home.
When Fant jumps from a riverboat to avoid a murder charge, he leaves Merry penniless and pregnant. Fortunately, a distant relative who assumes as everyone does that Fant us dead, leaves his farm in trust to Merry’s child.
Merry drives herself and her hired help hard to make the farm profitable, but her “late husband” reappears stealthily every few years, leaving her cashless and pregnant. The community and her four children consider Merry a whore.
Meanwhile, few savvy traders are turning tobacco into a major industry. By the time Fant is killed in a shootout in Merry’s yard, the trading syndicate has a stranglehold on tobacco farmers. One of its leaders is Merry’s brother-in-law.
The farmers unite to sell their tobacco as a block to keep the price up, but it’s Merry who saves the day.
Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier chose her historical setting well. It provides cover for a contrived plot and characters that never quite ring true. There’s plenty of entertainment in this novel, and a generous dollop of historical insight as well.
Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier
My Grade: C+
1942 Bestseller #5
And Now Tomorrow is a predictable pot-boiler told by an “old woman” of 28 as she reflects on her youth.
Emily Blair grows up doing what was expected of a Blair of Blairtown, Massachusetts in the early twentieth century. She even falls in love with an employee in her family’s textile mill who is predicted to move into management of the business.
Unpredictably, Emily loses her hearing as the textile industry falls on hard times. A new, attractive doctor in town asks to try an experimental treatment on her. She reluctantly agrees, but doesn’t tell anyone for fear of getting her hopes up.
Meanwhile, Emily’s fiancé has fallen for her sister. He won’t desert Emily, however, because he pities her for her deafness. When experimental treatment begins to restore her hearing, Emily has to decide whether her hearing or her fiancé is more important.
Exactly what you’d expect to happen does happen.
Rachel Field’s characters are as predictable and innocuous as her plot. The real interest in the book is the labor trouble at the family textile plant. They reflect the nation’s economic woes of the mid 1920s as the country hurled headlong toward the stock market crash of ’29.
And Now Tomorrow
1942 Bestseller #4
My Grade: C
Photo credit: “old facility” uploaded by pipp http://www.sxc.hu/photo/52052