For contemporary readers, the best reading from the 1944 bestsellers are two titles that have by two novelists who are largely unremembered. Each zooms in on behaviors that were outside the norms.
Strange Fruit is Lilian Smith’s story of an interracial couple in the South long before civil rights. The story is not just about race. It focuses on how the personalities of the individuals influence and are influenced by the racial prejudices in their societies.
Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams is a variation on the murder mystery pattern. Readers see all the events leading up to the discovery of a woman’s body. They know the deceased was pathologically jealous and vindictive. What they don’t know until the very end is whether she was murdered or whether she committed suicide. Both possibilities are equally plausible.
Less exciting than either of those titles, but still good reading, is A Bell for Adano by the better-known novelist John Hersey. Although Hersey’s novel is set in occupied territory during World War II, its tone is sweet by comparison to the bestsellers by Smith and by Williams. Its protagonist, Major Joppolo, is not as exciting as the maladjusted characters Smith and Williams describe, but his character, conviction, and common sense make him a more admirable one.
When the American army kicks the fascists and their German allies out of Italy, Major Joppolo is assigned to restore order in Adano. He is supposed to see that there is food, water, sanitation and an appreciation for freedom and democracy.
He also has to keep his own troops in line.
The locals say the most important thing Joppolo can do is to replace the 700-year-old bell the fascists melted down to make gun barrels.
Joppolo vows to find Adano another bell.
He is beginning to get the town running again when General Marvin’s jeep is blocked by a mule cart as he passes through Adano.
The General orders the mule shot and all carts prohibited in Adano. Without the carts, Adano has no way to get water.
Joppolo countermands the General’s order.
John Hersey tells his tale with humor and gentle irony. The outcome of the story is predictable. The characters are predictable, too, by virtue of being very ordinary sorts of people.
We need men like Joppolo in our occupying armies, Hersey says, “to guarantee the behavior of men under pressure.”
Abu Grabe and Haditha testify that we still need to be reminded of that.
A Bell for Adano
By John Hersey
Alfred A. Knopf, 1944
1944 bestseller #9
My Grade: B
Green Dolphin Street is an unforgettable novel for the worst of reasons: The plot hinges on mistake so implausible it beggars the imagination.
Two girls brought up in the Channel Islands fall for the same boy. William goes off to sea and ends up working in a lumber camp in New Zealand.
Deciding it’s time to marry, he writes to his prospective father-in-law to ask for vivacious Marguerite’s hand. Unfortunately, he gets her name wrong and asks for her bossy older sister, Marianne, instead.
When Marianne gets off the clipper in New Zealand, William decides to make the best of a bad deal.
Marianne’s business sense fails to make up to William for her nasty temper.
Marianne isn’t happy with William either.
Marguerite, meanwhile, takes care of both parents until they die, then enters a convent.
Eventually William and Marianne return to their childhood home, everyone makes nice together, and all live happily guilt-free ever after.
Elizabeth Goudge does a good job of describing the personalities of her characters and setting the scene, but she doesn’t make the story flow from that. The story is one implausible scene after another.
As to all three main characters having a glorious religious experience, that’s as incredible as a green dolphin.
Green Dolphin Street
By Elizabeth Goudge
1944 bestseller #8
My Grade: C-
A stodgy New England writer meets a sultry siren with a screw loose, setting the scene for murder and mayhem in Ben Ames Williams riveting novel Leave Her to Heaven.
Richard Harland meets Ellen Berent in New Mexico where she has come with her mother and sister to scatter her father’s ashes. Richard is fascinated by Ellen but something about her troubles him.
He decides he’ll remain a bachelor.
Ellen has other ideas.
Writing off her finance-lawyer, she maneuvers Richard into marriage, telling him, “I will never let you go.”
Ellen is jealous of Richard’s younger brother, Danny; of her sister, Ruth; of Richard’s friends; of his writing — of anything that takes Richard’s attention from her.
There’s a series of unfortunate accidents.
Ellen’s baby is stillborn.
Ellen herself dies of acute gastritis.
About two years later, Richard marries Ruth. They are just home from their honeymoon when Ruth is charged with Ellen’s murder.
To show Ruth’s innocence, her lawyer must show Ellen committed suicide. He puts Richard on the stand and probes the details of his deteriorating relationship with Ellen.
Leave Her to Heaven is well-plotted with keenly-drawn characters. Pristine New England forests provide stark contrast to Ellen’s poisonous malevolence, making this spine-chilling, can’t-put-down reading.
Leave Her to Heaven
By Ben Ames Williams
Houghton Mifflin, 1944
1944 bestseller #7
My Grade: A-
A. J. Cronin’s The Green Years is formula fiction with an inspirational ending.
After his parents die, Robert Shannon is taken in by his mother’s family, strangers to him. Some of them are very strange indeed. The family is poor, and “Papa’s” miserly ways make their lives even more miserable than they need to be.
Robert’s desire to be liked makes him an easy target for liars and cheats. He usually ends up poorer, no wiser, and more introverted and depressed than before.
His teacher encourages him to try for a scholarship, but when diphtheria keeps him from the third day of testing, Robert’s scholarship hopes are ruined.
He ends up working as a boilermaker, shunning friends and family who supported his dreams. They remain faithful to him, however, and provide the book with a happy ending.
Cronin’s characters are nothing more than two-dimensional sketches. Robert grows older, but doesn’t seem to grow up. He shows every sign of developing into self-centered, depressed adult.
The Green Years is one more nail in the coffin of the the poor-but-brilliant orphan storyline.
Let’s bury it once and for all.
The Green Years
By A. J. Cronin
Little, Brown, 1944
1944 bestseller #6
My grade: C +
The narrator of The Razor’s Edge says he never began a novel with more misgiving.
His apprehension is well-founded.
Invited to a luncheon by an American acquaintance, the narrator meets his niece Isobel and her boy friend. Larry had lied about his age to become a pilot in The Great War. Since the war ended, he’s done nothing.
Isobel’s family refuse let her marry Larry unless he stops loafing and starts working.
Isabel threatens to call off their engagement unless he gets a job.
Larry calls her bluff.
Isobel marries a financier instead.
Larry bums around Europe and India reading philosophy and contemplating infinity, a flower child 40 years ahead of his time.
Why won’t Larry work?
We’d say he had post-traumatic stress disorder. Larry says (much later to the narrator) – that he was grappling with how evil could exist if there is a good God. In this tale of rich Americans in European watering spots between the wars, a discussion of the problem of good and evil is as bizarre as a singer in a tuxedo at the Woodstock Festival.
The book’s high point is W. Somerset Maugham’s oft-quoted line about American women expecting the perfection in their husbands that English women expect only in their butlers.
The Razor’s Edge: a novel
By W. Somerset Maugham
1944 bestseller # 5
My Grade: B-
The period of the English Restoration, when England rejected the Puritan Oliver Cromwell Puritanism in favor of the profligate Charles II, is the setting for Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber.
Amber St. Clair is the orphaned love child of a couple whose families were on opposite sides during the English Civil War. When the Cavaliers come through town, Amber is seduced at 16 by Bruce, Lord Carlton, who tells her he won’t marry her and proves it by going off privateering.
Left to her own resources, Amber marries for money a man who marries her for her money.
Both are disillusioned.
Amber winds up in debtor’s prison. She escapes through her sexual prowess and begins a series of alliances designed to raise her social status and income.
“The brilliant, lavish, exciting life of an exclusive harlot seemed to her a most pleasant one,” Windsor says.
From then on, Amber’s life is a series of sexual alliances that ultimately take her to the bedchamber of the king himself.
When Amber’s enemies finally figure how to get rid of her, it is 450 pages too late to do readers any good.
Forever Amber is simply an interminable bore.
By Kathleen Winsor
Bestseller #4 for 1944
Bestseller #1 for 1945
My grade: D+
Strange Fruitis a simple love story in a setting where nothing is simple.
The girl is Nonnie Anderson, tall, lovely, college-educated. Her family can’t understand why she stays in her dead-end town working as caregiver for a retarded child.
The reason is Tracy Deen, an aimless college drop-out seething with resentment because his mother liked his sister best.
When Nonnie tells Tracy she’s pregnant, his response is predictable: He doesn’t want to think about it.
None of this would be more than mildly interesting except that Nonnie is black, Tracy is white, and they live in 1940s’ Georgia. The sun beats mercilessly, humidity rises, people get edgy, and sounds of a tent evangelist call white sinners to immunity within the church.
Lillian Smith, who lived most of her life in Georgia, knows all the nuances of race relations in the South. She shows us that race is only one factor in race relations. Poverty, education, anti-Yankee sentiment, and religion all play a role.
But the most important factor is human choice.
Our society still hasn’t come to grips with the issues Smith raises in Strange Fruit— all the more reason to read this marvelous 1944 novel today.
By Lillian Smith
Harcourt, Brace, 1944
1944 Bestseller #1
My grade = A
Film versions were made of all but one novels on the 1944 list. The one hold-out was the novel in last place, Asch’s The Apostle.
The top seller, Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit may be remembered today primarily for being inspired by a song made famous by Billie Holiday and honored by Time magazine as “the song of the century.” You can learn about the song’s intriguing history in an 2012 NPR “Morning Edition” piece by Elizabeth Blair. In its era, however, the novel Strange Fruit was notorious for having been literally banned in Boston and even prohibited from being distributed by U.S. mail for a few days.
The number four novel of the year, Forever Amber, escaped the censors, but its film version ran into problems.
A Bell for Adano won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1945.
Three of the 1944 bestsellers made the list more than once. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Apostle, which were bestsellers only in 1943 won top honors again in 1944. 1944 marked the third appearance of The Robe, which would reappear on the bestseller list for a fourth time in 1953.
Scheduling note: on May 10, I’ll review a well-known 1934 novel that didn’t make the bestseller list.