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.
Cronin and Hilton were prolific writers who knew how to write novels that translated well into films. Hilton even worked as a Hollywood screenwriter. Their names were, if not household words, instantly recognizable to the reading public on both sides of the Atlantic for a large portion of the twentieth century.
In their 1953 bestsellers, Cronin and Hilton tell stories of men remarkable for their ordinariness. Cronin’s protagonist is career foreign service officer nearing retirement age; Hilton’s is a young collegian planning a teaching career.
Each of these unlikely heroes would laugh at the idea of doing anything heroic. They go on playing the bit role life assigned them until they each tumble into a situation they cannot in good conscience ignore.
Here’s your chance to tell about your favorite 1953 bestsellers. If I haven’t messed up, you can select up to three choices. If you want to say why you like those particular novels, take all the space you’d like in the comments section to do that.
I’ll follow up Wednesday with short list of my favorites of the top 10.
In The Unconquered, Ben Ames Williams picks up the story of the South during the mid-1800s that he began in House Divided.
Having lost their estates, Major Travis Currain and family move to New Orleans where he hopes to revive their fortunes by manufacturing cottonseed oil.
Trav’s old-South family ties and friendship with men of vastly different political persuasions let him see the events of Reconstruction from a variety of angles. Trav refuses to be drawn into Louisiana politics himself, but rising political tensions strike home anyway. Trav’s son, Peter, finds outlet for his sadism in murdering blacks; his daughter, Lucy, marries a former Maine schoolteacher who works for the despised Freedman’s Bureau.
Few writers can handle historical fiction as well as Williams, and here he is in top form.
The Unconquered shows the cauldron of Louisiana politics seething until it boils over, slinging death in all directions. Enough animosity remains for many years of smaller spills.
With the exception of the totally rotten Peter Currain, the characters are each believable mixes of good and bad traits, but Williams makes even Peter believable.
The Unconquered drives home the point that the war isn’t over when the fighting ends—a truism as valid in Iraq or Afghanistan as in Louisiana.
By Ben Ames Williams
Houghton Mifflin, 1953
1953 bestseller #10
My grade A-
Lord Vanityis a sweeping historical romance spanning two continents in the age of enlightenment. For some readers, the period details, such as the marvelous description of the battle for Montreal, may compensate for the novel’s flaws. Unfortunately, for most readers, the lead characters are not strong enough to stand out against the background of Samuel Shellabarger’s scholarship.
A handsome bastard, Richard Morandi, is toggling together a living in Venice as an actor-musician. He falls for a charming ballerina. Maritza’s pedigree is as socially unacceptable as Richard’s.
Richard falls under the influence of one rogue after another until the details of his background become public knowledge. Then he goes off to Montreal to serve under Wolfe.
Thanks to Richard, the British beat the French in North America. His past obscured by the victory, Richard becomes a spy for the British in Paris. There he meets Maritza again.
Lord Vanity is a romance, so a happy ending is contrived for the couple.
Richard’s lack of perception and his absurd pretension of morality render him joke even as the juvenile lead in this farcical plot. Maritza is almost equally implausible with her emotional acuity and moral purity.
History buffs won’t care; they’ll love this novel for its details.
by Samuel Shellabarger
Little, Brown, 1953
1953 bestseller #9
My grade B-
Credit: The original image above is one of many on the website www.uppercanadahistory.ca, which is a wonderful resource of well-written and well-illustrated information about Canadian history.
Time and Time Again is primarily character study, but a superbly plotted one, and James Hilton’s totally unpredictable ending is entirely plausible.
Charles Anderson, 52, is a British career diplomat. To date, his public life has been respectably dull aside intermittent painful episodes resulting from his father’s descent into dementia.
Charles bears the knowledge that his friends call him “Stuffy” with a mingled pride and humility. In his affectionate tolerance of his father, he demonstrates the integrity that inspires the respect of both friend and foe.
Charles is assisting in some tricky negotiations with the Russians at a Paris conference when, to celebrate Gerald’s 17th birthday, he asks his son to join him. Since Gerald was sent to America after his mother was killed in the blitz, Charles has seen little of his son. Charles hopes the dinner will begin a relationship that will flourish when he retires.
When Gerald hurries away from the dinner, Charles follows. He walks in on the boy with a woman in an American-style soda fountain.
While he’s trying to cover his embarrassment occasioned as much by the American cuisine as the assignation, Charles is further embarrassed by the appearance of his adversary from the conference, the Russian negotiator Palan.
This is an unexpectedly good novel that can be read time and time again.
Time and Time Again
By James Hilton
Little, Brown, 1953
1953 bestseller #8
My grade B+
Beyond This Place is one of A. J. Cronin’s most intriguing novels, and one in a genre not typical for him: It’s a mystery.
When 21-year-old Paul Burgess needs his birth certificate to get a teaching job, his mother has to tell him he’s really Paul Mathry. His father, Rees Mathry, is serving a life sentence for murder.
Paul learns his father was sentenced to hang, but the sentence was commuted. Paul finds that suspicious.
Further investigation turn up other information oddly omitted from the police inquiry: a bag left at the murder scene was made of human skin, and one witness believed the man who fled the scene had escaped on a green bicycle.
Paul’s investigation makes some very influential people very uncomfortable.
Some of the dialog is stilted, but the strong story pulls readers over those rocky patches. Even as Paul makes progress, the outcome is never assured.
Paul himself might fail under pressure.
His father might die in prison.
Key witnesses might be bought off.
Paul is a decent, persistent plodder. His very ordinariness is part of the attraction of this novel. When Paul’s successes create more difficulties for him, readers will feel he’s one of them
Beyond This Place
by A. J. Cronin
Little, Brown, 1953
1953 bestseller # 7
My grade: B
Ernest K. Gann’s The High and the Mightyis to aviation novels what Gone with the Wind is to Civil War novels.
A commercial airline is leaving Honolulu for San Francisco. The crew meticulously checks everything that could possibly go wrong , knowing that failure of some tiny, unseen part somewhere could trigger a series of small failures that could plunge everyone on board to their deaths.
They take off
At 35, Sullivan, is a seasoned pilot. His co-pilot took to the air in 1917; aside from a brief period after a crash in which his wife and son and all but one other passenger perished, Roman has been flying ever since.
The other three crew members and the 16 passengers are standard Hollywood issue: a pair of newly weds, a couple splitting up, a whore with a heart of gold, a dying man, an all-business millionaire. Their stories cover the long blocks of time when nothing is happening in the cockpit.
A pilot himself, Gann writes with precise, spine-chilling detail about the plane’s operation and the mental and emotional courage of the crews that keep them flying.
Gann’s story is implausible in a predictable, hollywood way, but peopled with characters so vividly drawn that the tale is unforgettable.
The High and the Mighty
by Ernest K. Gann
William Sloane Associates, 1953
1953 bestseller # 6
My grade: B
In From Here to Eternity, James Jones tells us the peace-time military isn’t any better. The officers are incompetent and unethical, the enlisted men are social and moral misfits.
Recruits seeking refuge from bumming through the depression know it is just a matter of time until America enter the war. Shiploads of them have are stationed in Hawaii waiting for their time to fight the Germans.
The infantrymen of A company spend their time boozing, brawling, gambling, and queuing for sex at one of the thriving brothels. The officers are similarly occupied, except that instead of brawling, they connive for promotions in a dignified manner.
When the characters are not passed out drunk, they talk. They don’t make sense, but they talk. Mostly they talk in slang, but occasionally they break into long paragraphs that sound like transcripts from a graduate philosophy seminar.
From Here to Eternityis 860 pages of mind-numbing detail about people you wouldn’t want in your living room doing things you don’t want done in your town.
You have better things to do from here to eternity than read this boring book.
From Here to Eternity
by James Jones
Delacort Press, 1951
1953 bestseller #5
Battle Cry is a fictional account of a “gang of beardless youths” who enlist after Pearl Harbor and are molded into a Marine “battalion of invincible boys” under the leadership of Maj. Sam Huxley.
The narrator, known only as Mac, tells mainly about his boys who on first sight are, “an anemic Indian, a music lover, a lumberjack with ten thumbs, a farmer, a feathermerchant, …the All American boy… [and] a renegade trouble maker.”
Most of the novel is boring. The men drill and hike, drink and hike, play poker and hike, talk about women and hike faster, gripe louder and hike even faster and further with heavier loads.
They curse Huxley for their misery and idolize him for never asking more of them than he demands of himself. They take pride in being “Huxley’s Whores.”
Battle Crywas Leon M. Uris’s first published novel. It suffers from the usual problem of first novels—insufficient practice—and the usual problem of historical novels: making the story fit the history.
A battalion is too many characters to make a good story. Novelists ought to follow Marine Corp’s procedure and look for a few good men.
Battle Cry also does what a war novel should do: it makes the non-boring parts of war so horrific readers wish for boredom.
by Leon M. Uris
Avon Books paperback edition, 2005
1953 bestseller # 4
My grade C