Only Returning Vets Could Love Lydia Bailey

Lydia Bailey burst onto the post-war literary scene, securing author Kenneth Roberts a niche in popular historical fiction for years. Today the novel serves only as a glimpse into the background of events that occasionally erupt onto the evening news.

In 1800, lawyer Albion Hamlin reluctantly leaves his New England farm to represent clients fighting government regulation and red tape.

Hamblin’s work takes him to Haiti, where he meets and marries the lovely Lydia Bailey. Caught in the hostilities surrounding the French re-invasion of the island, the couple escape and sail for Europe.

In the Mediterranean, they are captured by forces of the Baashaw of Tripoli, who has declared war on America. The couple saves their skins, but their lives are never the same afterward.

Hamlin says the things most soldiers just home from the front lines would like to say. I suspect his bitterness made Lydia Bailey a success among folks who had just come through World War II.

Today’s returning vets may have the same gripes, but they wouldn’t go for Roberts’ writing. All Roberts’ meticulous research can’t hide the implausible plot. And his flat, one-dimensional characters and paragraph-length sentences would sink the novel.

Lydia Bailey
By Kenneth Roberts
Doubleday, 1947
488 pages
#4 bestseller in 1947
My Grade: C
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Gentleman’s Agreement Victim of Its Own Success

Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement shook readers who had just come through World War II and considered themselves unprejudiced.

Journalist Phil Green decides to pose as a Jew to get the inside angle on anti-Semitism. Initially, only his mother, his girlfriend, and his editor know his Jewishness is only a pose.

Green becomes increasingly sensitized to prejudice. First he notices disparaging language, and then feels the slights and rejections. But it’s the reaction of those closest to him—his sister, his girlfriend, his son—that hit Green hardest.

Hobson tries to make her characters a mixture of good and bad, but they never quite ring true. Greene displays a naiveté that borders on stupidity. It never occurs to Green, for example, that his 8-year-old son is going to have questions about the charade.

Although anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of prejudice are probably as strong in America today as when Hobson was writing Gentleman’s Agreement, the novel wouldn’t have much impact on contemporary readers. Since 1947, we’ve seen too many stories about someone who goes undercover to get the scoop on being a minority.

The plot that confronted readers in 1947 is a cliché today.

Gentleman’s Agreement has become the victim of its own success.

Gentleman’s Agreement
Laura Z. Hobson
Simon and Schuster, 1947
275 pages
#3 bestselling novel in 1947
My Grade: C+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Moneyman Gives Good Value

The Moneyman, Thomas B. Costain’s novel of 15th century French intrigue and counter-intrigue. is a much better novel than the tales of the Christian era for which Costain is famous.

“The Moneyman” is Jacques Coeur, semi-official financier for Charles VII. For years, Coeur manipulated French policy through the king’s mistress, Agnes Sorel. When Agnes becomes ill, Coeur must find a replacement so the king won’t turn to other advisers after Agnes dies.

Coeur finds and trains Valerie, a poor girl who looks like Agnes. When Agnes dies shortly after Coeur and Valerie visit her, the pair is charged with her murder. Coeur’s worst enemies are to be the judges at the trial; Coeur is not allowed to examine witnesses or call witnesses.

Right to the end I couldn’t figure out how Coeur and Valerie were going to get out of their predicament—and it mattered to me that they did.

Oddly enough, neither the plot nor the characters of  The Moneyman are unusual. In The Moneyman, however, Costain has woven them so well into the historical account of battles to evict the English from France that the plot and characters seem alive.

Rediscover The Moneyman. It’s still a great read.

The Moneyman
By Thomas B. Costain
Doubleday, 1947
434 pages
#2 Bestseller for 1947
My Grade: B+
© 2006 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Humor gives The Miracle of the Bells appeal

The Miracle of the Bells is a standard religious novel to which Russell Janney has added a dollop of humor. The humor increases the novel’s appeal but can’t disguise its poor quality.

Press agent William “Spats” Dunnigan  had met Olga when she was an innocent waif determined to be a star. He felt sorry for her and made sure she had a job to keep her in groceries. When opportunity arose, he catapulted Olga from stand-in to staring role.

Shortly after the film shoot ended, Olga died from lung damage suffered as a child. While explaining to the town priest that Olga wanted the church bells rung for her funeral, Spats gets an idea. He’ll have all the bells in Coaltown rung for four days before the funeral, turning it into a promotion for the film studio.

Spats not only achieves his publicity objectives, but also turns the town upside down. It’s a miracle! But there’s no reason to think Spats is a better man because of it.

If Russell Janney weren’t so clever with his odd characters and funny lines, the novel would fall flat. For substance, readers will have to look elsewhere. The Miracle of the Bells offers nothing but fun.

The Miracle of the Bells
By Russell Janney
Prentice Hall, 1946
#1 bestseller in 1947
My grade: C+
© 2006 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Best-selling novels of 1947

1947 was a very good year for novels.  More than half the novels on America’s top 10 list for the year are still entertaining and thought-provoking reading.  In the next few weeks, I’ll post reviews of all 10, starting with the No. 1 bestseller.  Check your public library or WorldCat to locate a copy near you.

  1. The Miracle of the Bells by Russell Janney 
  2. The Moneyman by Thomas B. Costain
  3. Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson
  4. Lydia Bailey by Kenneth Roberts
  5. The Vixens by Frank Yerby (No WorldCat member libraries show this item in their collections.)
  6. The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck   There are mutliple editions of this novel, each with its own OCLC number.
  7. House Divided by Ben Ames Williams
  8. Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis
  9. East Side, West Side by Marcia Davenport
  10. Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger

If You’d Rather Watch ’57 Bestsellers

On the Beach     compulsion.jpg      Peyton Place

I mentioned in an earlier post that Of Love Possessed, the top novel in ’57, was made into a movie. Other top novels of 1957 that got the Hollywood treatment were Peyton Place; Compulsion; Rally Round the Flag, Boys;  and On the Beach. (Look at that. All I have to do is think about Of Love Possessed and I break out in semicolons.) You’ll have no difficulty finding any of them in DVD.

Adapted for the big screen 1957, the Peyton Place film version was almost a flop. It was saved by publicity surrounding the murder trial of the daughter of star Lana Turner for the murder of her mother’s mobster boyfriend. The film is available in VHS and DVD formats. The novel also spawned the  the first prime time TV soap opera. That’s out on DVD, too.

There are two versions of On the Beach. Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner starred in the first film adapation in 1959. It’s available in VHS and DVD formats. A 2000 remake starring Armand Assante was on TV a week or so ago. It is available on DVD. sells the two versions on DVD as a set, for people who want to be really depressed.

A movie version of Compulsion was released in 1959. (It’s available on DVD.) Nathan Leopold (the character on whom Judd Steiner is based) was offended by the film. From prison, he sued author Levin and the film’s producer Richard Zanuck for invasion of privacy. The case dragged on for years. Leopold finally lost: he was declared a public figure not entitled to privacy protection.

Rally Round the Flag, Boys! is available on DVD. It stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

My Picks for 1957

Looking back at the 1957 bestsellers from 60 years later, I rank Compulsion by Meyer Levin and On the Beach by Nevil Shute as the best reading of that year’s top ten.Both these novels are top-notch entertainment on topics that remain timely. Compulsion deals with why smart people commit crimes. On the Beach deals with the consequences of poor political choices.I’d give Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged the next slot on my favorites list. I don’t consider it good entertainment; far from it. The book is too long and Rand tells far more than she shows. But Rand’s political and philosophical views are still worth a read today because her ideas are still in the air.

Nothing else on the 1957 list is more than ho-hum reading.

Peyton Place deserves a mention though. The title has become almost synonymous with illicit sex through the novel is tame by today’s standards.

Want to know a little about how I reach my opinions? Check the  “about the reviewer” and “how I grade” pages listed across the top of this page.


Shrug off Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand’s philosophy poorly disguised as a novel. Readers who get through the 1000+ page novel deserve a prize—perhaps a “lifetime achievement award”—as compensation for getting so little pleasure.

The story centers on Dagny Taggert, granddaughter of the founder of Taggert Transportation and the brains behind its 20th century operation. Dagny is determined to keep her trains running profitably despite socialistic policies seemingly designed to stamp out every successful business.

As one industrialist after another is taxed out of existence and disappears, Dagny hangs on—and Rand drones on.

Rand makes the shortcomings of socialism real, but she fails to make a case that profit motive produces morality. In her desire to show the triumph of rationality, she fails to account for the presence of the irrational, despoiling, misery-making element in society. In her eagerness to prove justice superior to love, she degrades love to either sex or pity.

Characters’ facial features, physical settings, even Dagny’s evening gowns come out of a trunk Rand keeps for dressing her characters: I remember them from The Fountainhead.

In the hands of a Taylor Caldwell or Nevil Shute, this novel could be spell-binding.

Rand makes it numbing.

Atlas Shrugged
By Ayn Rand
Random House, 1957
1168 pages
#10 bestseller of 1957
My Grade: D+
©2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Too many stories in Below the Salt

Below the Salt is a story within a story within a story—which is two stories too many even for an accomplished historical yarn-spinner like Thomas B. Costain.

The outside story is about a would-be novelist, John Foraday. Senator Richard O’Rawn, a man who jilted John’s grandmother years before, takes John on a jaunt to Ireland and England. John falls for the last of the O’Rawn family, a descendant of the Plantagenet kings. John also ghostwrites the Senator’s tale about an earlier Richard O’Rawn who was involved in the events that resulted in King John signing the Magna Charta and limiting his own powers.

Within that story is another story about an earlier Charta signed an earlier king and hidden by the O’Rawns for safekeeping.

Below the Salt gives a fascinating glimpse of medieval history, but as a novel, it’s a dud. Except for the historical figures, none of the novel’s characters is plausible.

The Senator says he wants his story to be a warning to modern Americans, but it’s never clear what the warning is.

As for the idea that the Senator is the reincarnation of a 12th century squire, well, even the Senator gives up on that before the book ends.

Below the Salt
By Thomas B. Costain
Doubleday, 1957
480 pages
#9 bestseller of 1957
My grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

On The Beach is so good, it’s terrifying

On the Beach is a gripping novel of suspense and horror by a master storyteller.

I burst into tears after I finished it.

Nevil Shute (a pen name; his real name is Norway) writes quietly, warmly about people who seem familiar. There’s no blood and gore in this novel:  just the raw horror of seeing the personal effects of world events.

The book opens Dec. 27 in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear war that wiped out life in the northern hemisphere.

Radioactive particles in the atmosphere are slowly making their way south. Scientists predict they will have reached Australia by September.

Australian naval officer Peter Holmes, assigned as liaison officer on an American nuclear submarine—one of two remaining American vessels in the world—invites American Captain Dwight Towers home for the weekend.

Peter’s wife gives a party, inviting Moria Davidson to amuse the captain. Moria falls hard for the captain; he likes her, too, but he loves his wife and kids back home in Connecticut.

Besides, he has a job to do.

Radio signals have been coming intermittently from Puget Sound. Mostly the signals have been gibberish, but there have been occasional decipherable words. Captain Towers is sent to investigate.

What happens after that will terrify anyone who keeps up with world news.

On the Beach
by Nevil Shute
William Morrow,  1957.  320 pages.
#8 on the 1957 bestseller list.
My grade: A+
©2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni