The Black Rose sheds light on three cultures

In The Black Rose novelist Thomas B. Costain takes readers back into the Dark Ages with a romantic tale that sweeps from England to China.

The bastard son of a Crusader, Walter of Gurnie hopes to make a fortune in the Far East so he can come back to England and be somebody.

The Black Rose by Thomas B. Costain

Doubleday, Doran, 1945. 403 pages. 1945 bestseller #5, 1946 bestseller  #8. My grade: B-.


Walter  gets caught up in the common people’s fight for justice against the nobles.

Dust Jacket of The Black Rose
This novel was on my parents’ bookshelves.

When their role becomes known, Walter and his sidekick, Tristram, skeedaddle.

Walter and Tristram hook up with a caravan led by Mongolian General Bayan of the Hundred Eyes. The party includes 81 girls being sent as a present to Kubla Khan.

Walter and Tristram help Maryam, a girl sired by a Crusader, to escape. Walter marries her.

The trio make a fortune in China.

Then the men get separated from Maryam and return without her to England.

The Black Rose would be worth reading just for its comparison of the cultures of West, Middle-East, and Far East in later 13th century.

Neither the characters nor the plot is believable, but Costain moves things along quickly so readers don’t have much time to notice. The result is an entertaining novel with some educational value slipped in.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni


Antoine’s Serves Mystery with Dinner

Dinner at Antoine’s is an endlessly pleasing novel. Since I found it on my mother’s bookshelf back in the ’60s, I’ve read it many times. I  never remember reading it until I’m almost done, so I enjoy it every time.

Orson Foxworth gives a dinner at Antoine’s restaurant to introduce his niece Ruth Avery to his New Orleans friends, including Amélie Lalande, the woman he plans to marry, and her family.

Ruth is immediately drawn to Amelie’s married daughter, Odile, but repelled by the sexually charged relationship between her husband and her sister—as well as by Amélie’s refusal to notice anything wrong.

When Odile is found shot to death the day after her doctor diagnoses her trembling as the first sign of an incurable condition that will paralyze her , there’s no shortage of suspects. Everyone from Odile’s mother to Foxworth appears to have a motive for murder—if it was murder and not suicide.

To the murder mystery Frances Parkinson Keyes adds two love stories, a conspiracy to overthrow a Latin American government, and generous dollops of New Orleans insider tittle-tattle, producing as pleasant an evening’s reading as you could hope to find.

Dinner at Antoine’s
By Frances Parkinson Keyes
Julian Messner 1948
366 pages
Bestseller # 3 for 1948, # 6 for 1949
My grade: B
©2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Bottom of 1948 list is top read today

The Young Lions, Irwin Shaw’s whopping novel about three very different World War II soldiers, was #10 on the 1948 bestseller list. However, it is clearly the best of that year’s novels by today’s standards. By comparison, the best of the rest are mediocre.

Shaw shows how people of different temperaments reach differently to war. Even though they may be equally good solders, some enjoy its challenges while others merely endure. War heightens their prewar personalities.

By contrast, the soldiers in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead are cogs in a wheel. The only thing that they have to recommend them is endurance. His men slog through the jungle the way they slogged through prewar life. They had no personalities to be heightened. Mailer’s book may be a truer picture of war, but it’s a depressing book.

Also in the good-but-depressing category is Tomorrow Will Be Better by Betty Smith. Smith’s battlefield is a poor urban neighborhood where people fight to get a better life for their kids. Like Mailer’s soldiers, Smith’s city dwellers have nothing to recommend them but endurance.

The 1948 list has some decent escape reading. Dinner at Antoine’s (Frances Parkinson Keyes), The Bishop’s Mantle (Agnes Sligh Turnbull) and Pilgrim’s Inn (Elizabeth Goudge) fit in this category. Any of these is good take-on-vacation reading.



The Young Lions Superb Novel of the Hell Inside Soldiers

The Young Lions is a superbly plotted novel about three solders in World War II. Christian Diestl is a cultured German; Noah Ackerman is an American Jew; Michael Whitacre is a clumsy ,idealistic, American playwright.

Irwin Shaw introduces each in his own chapter, then continues to cycle through their stories as each man is drawn into the war. As all three wind up in France after D-Day, their stories converge.

The war is awful for soldiers on both sides. Bad food and sore feet are every soldier’s lot. Opportunists on both sides make money from other men’s misery. Both sides have equally incompetent officers.

This is not so much a “war is hell” story as a story about the hell men carry with them to war. War defines and intensifies each one’s essential nature.

There are no stereotypes, no heroes or villains from central casting. Shaw, a playwright himself, shows each man through his words and actions. The men are so distinctive, you feel almost as if you actually knew them.

Although The Young Lions is easily twice typical novel length, the story is so engrossing it doesn’t seem a paragraph too long.

This is superb reading. Don’t miss it.

The Young Lions
By Irwin Shaw
Random House, 1948
689 pages
Bestseller # 10 for 1948
My Grade: A-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Pilgrim’s Inn Is Restful, Renewing

Pilgrim’s Inn is Elizabeth Goudge’s gentle novel of an English family pulling themselves back together after World War II.

Lady Lucilla Eliot gets her daughter-in-law to the country to interview a prospective governess. She lures Nadine’s husband and their five children out the same weekend to see a nearby country inn that’s for sale.

George and the children fall in love with Herb o’ Grace, and Nadine succumbs to their enthusiasm. The Eliots return to their roots in a setting the children recognize as being straight out of The Wind in the Willows.

Before long they are in residence and remodeling. They take in paying guests, including a famous painter and his daughter.

Meanwhile, Lucilla’s grandson, David, a noted actor before the war, has come home to recover from a mental breakdown.

The house is discovered to have been an inn for pilgrims. The renovation of the Herb o’ Grace becomes an opportunity for each member of the extended household to find peace and to restore and build relationships.

Goudge is not a great writer — her perspective shifts are a bit disorienting — but she is a kind one. Her compassion for people keeps The Pilgrim’s Inn readable when better but more cynical novels have been laid aside.

Pilgrim’s Inn
By Elizabeth Goudge
Coward-McCann 1948
346 pages
Bestseller # 9 for 1948
My Grade: C
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Shannon’s Way Is All Downhill

Shannon’s Way is A. J. Cronin’s sequel to The Green Years. Robert Shannon, now an M.D., is working in a research lab, bitterly doing grunt work.

Robert gets kicked out of the lab for doing his own research instead of his assigned duties. He finds comfort and encouragement in Jean Law, an attractive medical student headed for the mission field, but religious differences separate them.

From there, it’s downhill.

Robert loses post after post because he can’t get along with his co-workers. All the while, he keeps at his research.

Eventually, beaten to publication by another researcher, Robert has a breakdown. Jean reappears bearing an offer of a research appointment abroad and declaring her love.

This plot is absurd.

The reason Robert wasn’t first was to publish his discovery was that he took time to develop a vaccine against the organism — something the first researcher didn’t do. Robert could still have published, made a bundle, and been able to afford to eat.

Trying to pass Robert Shannon off as a hero is nuts. He may be a brilliant medical researcher, but he has the emotional intelligence of a newt. Why anybody can stand the guy is beyond me.

Poor Jean.

She’s in for a miserable life.

Shannon’s Way
By A. J. Cronin
Little, Brown, 1948
172 pages
Bestseller # 8 for 1948
My Grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Raintree County Is Impenetrable

Ross Lockridge Jr.’s Raintree County is one of the best novels you will never read. It’s only for the literati or readers serving consecutive life sentences.

This magnum opus — it’s over 1000 pages — follows John Wickliff Shawnessy from dawn to midnight July 4, 1892, weaving John’s memories and musings into the record of the county’s holiday celebration.

John was born in 1839 in Raintree County, Indiana. Before he was out of his teens, the entire county knew he was destined for greatness. He’d be a great runner, or great poet, or great politician.

His greatness never materialized.

At 43, John is principal of the local school. He lost his bid for Congress and has never finished his epic poem on the origins of the American republic. But he’s had some incredible adventures.

Throughout the day, John muses over his personal failures and wonders about the future of America and the human race. He reaches the conclusion that he’s a dreamer, but that dreaming is a lovely, courageous act.

Even with the chronologies Lockridge provides so readers can untangle the history, Raintree County is a tough slog. John is too intellectual to be attractive, and the novel is too literary to be entertaining.

Raintree County
By Ross Lockridge Jr.
Houghton Mifflin, 1948
1,060 pages
Bestseller # 7 for 1948
My Grade: B
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Golden Hawk Is a Turkey

The Golden Hawk is another bauble on Frank Yerby’s string of best-selling period romances. Yerby sets this one in the West Indies in the 1600s when human life was cheap and New World gold plentiful.

Bastard Kit Gerado, master of the pirate ship Seaflower, seeks a fortune plundering Spanish shipping. He longs for revenge on Spanish grandee Don Luis Del Toro, the man responsible for his mother’s death by torture.

Kit is a gorgeous, golden haired hunk: Errol Flynn with a bleach job. He has impeccable manners, unwavering loyalty, great compassion, enormous courage, and a Jewish sidekick, Bernardo, to provide the common sense Kit lacks.

On one of his plundering expeditions, Kit rescues Rouge, an English woman raped by Don Luis. Kit also captures Don Luis’s fiancé, Bianca, who falls for Kit, but he’s in love with Rouge. Which woman will win the Golden Hawk?

No mystery there. In fact, everything about this potboiler is totally predictable. The only surprise is that the novel is so sanitary. From the lurid dust cover, I expected a bodice-ripper, but Yerby’s most graphic details are his descriptions of mosquito bites.

Yerby does throw in some interesting historical tidbits, but not enough to rescue this banal novel from well-earned obscurity.

The Golden Hawk
By Frank Yerby
Dial Press , 1948
312 pages
Bestseller # 6 for 1948
My Grade: D+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tomorrow Will Be Better Skewers the American Dream

Tomorrow Will Be Better is Betty Smith’s second bestseller about poor folks who ask nothing more than a chance to work so their kids can have a better life.

Maggy Shannon, 16, just out of school, finds her first job sorting correspondence in a mail-order firm. Her department head, Mr. Prentiss is about twice her age, but his courtesy to her and to his demanding mother make him the object of Maggy’s fantasies.

The only boy Maggy knows is Frankie Malone, a classmate at PS18. Despite disapproval from both families, they marry.

When Maggy becomes pregnant, the unexpected expenses of the birth and burial of the stillborn infant expose the shaky foundation of her marriage.

The central issue of the novel is whether poor people really can improve their lot just by working hard. Smith suggests they can’t. The Shannons and Malones can’t set money aside for unexpected expenses.

What’s even worse, living on the edge makes people cranky and irrational. Bitterness become entrenched. Bickering pulls families apart.

Smith tells Maggy’s story simply and with compassion. The characters are very believable and very ordinary. The plot, too, is a slice of ordinary life. That ordinariness makes Tomorrow Will Be Better both compelling and important.

Tomorrow Will Be Better
By Betty Smith
Harper, 1948
274 pages
Bestseller # 5 for 1948
My Grade: B+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni