In picking my top choices from a year’s bestseller list, I look not only for good writing, plausible plots, and believable characters, but also stories whose topics have enduring relevance.
My choices for 1966 top novels
When I considered the 1966 bestsellers, enduring relevance tipped the scales in favor of The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud, and Tell No Man, by Adela Rogers St. Johns.
The two novels look at what happens when a society confuses cultural heritage with religious faith.
Malamud takes readers inside the mind of a victim of religious persecution, Yakov Bok, a Jew in Tsarist Russia.
Tsarist Russia was a state sponsor of conspiracy theories. Whenever anything bad happened, the Tsarist government assumed one of “those people” must be behind it.
Although there’s no credible evidence pointing to Bok, he’s a Jew, so he must be involved in some secret Jewish plot against innocent Russian Orthodox Christians, such as the murdered boy.
Bok’s experience of torture, starvation and months of solitary confinement is raised to tragedy by the fact that he doesn’t believe in the Jewish religion: Bok has merely been brought up in a community of Jews and grown up behaving outwardly as others in the community believe.
The Russians mistake Bok’s Jewish cultural heritage for Jewish religious faith.
Tell No Man
The central character of the book is Hank Garvin, a white, Yale-educated, former soldier and rising Chicago stockbroker.
Hank knows some of the more familiar Bible stories, but aside from a religion class at Yale, never considered Christianity had any relevance to his daily life.
Then his best friend commits suicide.
Hank has nothing to fall back on until he experiences a religious conversion.
He shucks his job, takes a quick course in how to be a a clergyman, and in a matter of months finds himself pastor of a church in an about-to-boom California city.
Unlike Malamud’s central character, Hank’s faith is personal, not cultural.
Hank takes literally Jesus’s promise that His disciples would do greater works than He did. Hank preaches that everyone who claims to be Christian also take that promise literally.
Hank arouses opposition from the church, the city, friends, family, and wife—most of whom consider themselves Christian because they lived in culture whose heritage was predominately Christian.
Culture, faith, and conspiracy theories today
Throughout the world today, groups of people are being given preferential treatment because of what their society assumes they believe to the point of practicing that belief.
And in those same societies others are being singled for harassment (frequently by those getting preferential treatment) because of what society assumes is their faith.
The Fixer and Tell No Man remind us that culture and faith are not identical. Confusing the two can be hazardous to a society or an individual.
© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni