Picking the 1943 bestsellers to which I wouldn’t give shelf space is easier than choosing three keepers. Five of the 10 have withstood the ravages of time.
My favorite is Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The novel is the quintessential American Dream tale. Armed only with grit, love, and a belief in the value of education, a poor Brooklyn in a family rises above poverty. What teacher can fail to tear up at the picture of Francie and Neely Nolan reading each night from the Protestant Bible and collected works of Shakespeare?
For second place, I’ll choose William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy. another novel about growing up in tough times. A boy too young to fight gets a job delivering telegrams during World War I. When those telegrams are sent by the War Department, the lad learns about the horrors of war far from the front lines.
For third place, I’ll pick a novel about the other end of life. Mrs. Parkington by Louis Bromfield is a study of a remarkable old lady living each day well. It beats John P. Marquand’s So Little Time by a nose. Although Marquand is the better writer, and his story the more realistic, I choose Bromfield for its emotional tone.
Bromfield’s Mrs. Parkington inspires readers; Marquand’s Jeff Wilson saddens them.
It’s time again for readers to speak up about their favorite bestsellers of 1943. Select your favorite from the list below. Other novel lovers would love to hear the reasons for your choices. The comments section is open.
I’ll not post my choices until May 15. On May 12, which is Mother’s Day, I’ll share some vintage novels that focus on mothers. That ought to be fun.
The Forest and the Fort is a historical novel about America’s prerevolutionary western frontier.
Salathiel Albine was raised as the son of a childless Indian chief who had murdered Sal’s family. An itinerant preacher befriends the young Sal, help him relearn English, teaches him to read and write, and brings him to the attention of Fort Pitt’s acting commander, Captain Ecuyer.
Ecuyer’s orderly trains Sal as his replacement. When Ecuyer is assigned to visit all the frontier forts, Sal accompanies him in a dual role of orderly and scout. Sal can scalp an enemy and powder a wig with equal efficiency.
Hervey Allen’s publishers brought out The Forest and the Fort as the first of a trilogy intended to be read as a set. Much of the novel reads as a set-up to events that will happen in future books.
Allen slips all sorts of interesting period details into the novel, such as Ecuyer’s giving Indians handkerchiefs and blankets from the smallpox hospital. However, the plot is totally forgettable and none of the characters is memorable.
You will find the novel a palatable way to learn about the political conflicts of the 1700s, but you will find little entertainment in its pages.
The Forest and the Fort
By Hervey Allen
Farrar & Rinhart, 1943
1943 bestseller # 9
My grade: C+
Hungry Hill is a novel book jackets refer to as a “sweeping saga.”
It’s what I call a stupendous bore.
In 1820, John Brodrick opens a copper mine at Hungry Hill near Doonhaven. A local man resentful of English takeover of Irish land, predicts the Brodericks and their estate will come to ruin. Daphne du Maurier spends the rest of the book showing the prediction come true.
Each succeeding generation of Brodericks is more foolish than the last. By 1920, there’s nothing left but chimney stacks and regrets.
Du Maurier fails to do more than just sketch characters and settings. The Dame tells us what we’re supposed to see, but it’s like looking for pictures in clouds. The facts are so flimsy, we can see any projection we wish.
The story line is equally superficial. We’ve seen all these plots before: The loving wife dying in childbirth, the mine-owner falling down his own mine shaft. The whole novel gives the impression of paper dolls manipulated by a child mouthing lines from her storybooks.
When John Henry realizes that he, like all the Brodricks, cares for nothing but his own comfort, it’s too late to do any good for the family or for du Maurier’s poor readers.
By Daphne du Mauier
Doubleday, Doran 1943
1943 bestseller # 8
My grade: C-
The Apostleis a fictional retelling of the story of Saul of Tarsus, the Jewish Pharisee who became the Christian missionary to the Gentiles.
Sholem Asch goes over the same ground covered in the Book of Acts but adds in all the New Testament epistles, which makes the story much longer and far less interesting.
Asch is out to show how central the Jews are to Christianity and he can’t be bothered with trivia like plot and characterization. Events that might have been interesting if told by a storyteller get short shrift.
In place of dialogue, the characters quote scripture— from the King James version of the Bible, no less. Why would someone writing about the first century from the vantage point of the 1930s have the characters speak in Elizabethan English?
Asch tries to account for some of the New Testament references that perplex today’s readers. He makes Paul an epileptic, blind in one eye, to account for his thorn in the flesh and his visions. Unfortunately, Asch isn’t able to blend his suppositions into anything resembling a human being. Paul is about as credible as a paper doll.
The Apostle is neither a good novel, good theology, or good history. It’s just a bore.
By Sholem Asch
Trans. Maurice Samuel
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943
1943 bestseller # 7
Mrs. Parkington, 84, is the very rich widow of a larger-than-life scoundrel whom she adored.
The only one of herfamily Mrs. Parkington can stand is her great-granddaughter, Janie. Daughter Alice is addicted to drugs and alcohol, much-married Madeline has just added a cowboy to her string of husbands, and Helen, Janie’s mother, is married to a man she hates.
Janie falls for a young government lawyer investigating her father’s fraudulent securities deals. Mrs. Parkington steps in to help the young lovers and repay the people her son-in-law defrauded.
Then Mrs. Parkington settles her own affairs. She changes her will to leave her heirs enough so they can live very well but “won’t be able to make fools of themselves.” Janie will get her share at age 40, after she’s had 15 years to learn what money can’t buy.
Louis Bromfield tells the story of Mrs. Parkington’s life piecemeal, as events trigger her memories. Readers get a detailed picture of the innocent Nevada lass who became a social leader by dint of her intelligence, perceptivity, moral fiber, and kindness as much as by her husband’s money.
Mrs. Parkington celebrates the art of growing old by living every day well.
Three cheers for Mrs. Parkington.
By Louis Bromfield
1943 bestseller #6
My Grade: A-
With its large type, wide margins, and black-and-white illustrations, The Human Comedy looks deceptively like a children’s book. It is really a novel about unimaginable horror.
Homer Macauley, 14, is big for his age and reliable, which is how he got his job as a telegraph messenger. With his older brother in the army, Homer is the wage-earner for a family of five.
Homer pedals his way into situations no 14-year-old is ready for. He delivers messages from the War Department telling mothers and wives their sons and husbands are never coming home again.
William Saroyan follows Homer around Ithaca, California, showing the hell war raises far from the battlefield on the telegraph operator who relays the messages, the younger sisters of missing men, the little brothers whose heroes will never play catch with them again.
The incidents of the novel are a wacky, believable mix of farce and tragedy. William Saroyan has a bad tendency to let his characters break out in lectures, but most of the the time his prose is pared down, painfully sweet, and poignantly sharp.
The Human Comedy is a tale that will linger at the edges of your memory for a long time to come.
The Human Comedy
By William Saroyan
Illustrated by Don Freeman
Harcourt, Brace, 1943
1943 bestseller #5
My grade: A-
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about Francie Nolan growing up in Brooklyn in the years just before and during World War I. Francie has a loving family, a library card, and little else.
Francie’s Mother is a cleaning woman, her father a singing waiter with a fondness for the bottle. Both parents want a better life for their kids.
After Johnny dies, Katie is forced to let Francie and her brother, Neeley, quit school to work, though neither is old enough to get working papers. Against the odds, Francie manages to work and get her diploma.
When Katie marries a well-off widower, Francie and Neeley feel sorry for their baby sister because she won’t have the fun they had.
The story outline sounds rather sentimental, but there is nothing sentimental about Betty Smith’s presentation. The characters are authentic individuals. Even the coincidences in the plot are plausible.
The book has a episodic quality that takes a little getting used to. It made me feel I was reading someone’s journal rather than a piece of fiction. The writing is not that of a teenager, but Betty Smith makes you feel you’re watching a teenager growing up.
For an optimistic look at real life, you can’t beat A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
By Betty Smith
Harper & Brothers, 1943
My Grade: Grade: A-
Jeffrey Wilson had started out as a journalist with aspirations of a literary career. The one play of his that was produced, bombed. Now middle aged, Jeff has become a script doctor. Directors respect his ability to sharpen lines so they convey the playwrite’s intent.
Jeff wouldn’t need to work (His wife, Madge, inherited money.), but his self-respect demands it.
He knows he has an instinct for the technical aspects of theater, but feels he lacks the talent to write a good play. But, like everyone at mid-life, he wonders if he might not be successful if he only gives it one more try.
So Little Time is about what happens when Jeff tries one more time.
John P. Marquand paints a placid picture of middle age that roils with an almost adolescent angst beneath its surface. Jeff swings in a minute from feeling Madge doesn’t’ understand him to feeling she knows what’s he’s thinking. But unlike a teenager, he doesn’t let on.
Marquand makes Jeff and Madge very ordinary people, believable and forgettable, like most of the people we come across in our lives.
So Little Time is the story of every man and woman’s middle years. You won’t remember the plot, only the feeling of loss it leaves.
So Little Time
By John P. Marquard
Little, Brown, 1943
1943 bestseller # 3
My Grade: B+
In 1873, Mary Rafferty goes to be ’tweenmaid in William Scott’s Pittsburgh home.
Her patience, humor, straight-thinking, practicality, and unswerving loyalty win the entire family. For nearly 60 more years, Mary remains in the Scott household, neither fully family nor fully employee.
When Paul Scott choses Mary as his bride, William father sees no reason to object to his son’s choice.
Mary, however, had other ideas. She feels her working class origins (both her father and brother worked in the Scott steel mill) make her unfit to marry into the family.
She refuses to marry Paul and pushes him into an unhappy marriage that ends in his wife’s suicide.
Afterward, Mary returns to bring up Paul’s children, run his house, help his grandchildren, keep his mill intact for the family.
Mary’s refusal to marry the man she loves was bizarre to her contemporaries. But Marcia Davenport makes Mary’s reasons so much a part of Mary’s essential character that she’s entirely believable, even admirable, in spite of her rigidly absurd social class standards.
By the time she puts the kettle on for tea in the last paragraph of The Valley of Decision, you’ll like Mary as much as the Scotts did.
The Valley of Decision
By Marcia Davenport
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944
1944 bestseller # 2
My Grade: B-