Mrs. Mike is a charming teacher

In Mrs. Mike, Benedict and Nancy Freedman created a story in which humor and heroism struggle against tragedy and terror. The good wins, but the price is heavy.

Mrs. Mike dust jacket
Mrs. Mike, first edition jacket

In 1907, 16-year-old Katherine Mary O’Fallon leaves Boston for Calgary, Canada promising her mother she would “dress warm and keep dry and not go out into the night where there were bears.”

She’s scarcely off the train before Michael Flannigan of the Canadian Mounted Police sweeps her off her feet and into the Northwest Territory where bears are just one of the dangers.

Kathy adapts too readily to wilderness life to be entirely believable, but she is such a sweetheart readers will chalk it up to love and determination. Mike is also larger than life, but he’s not a paragon. We can forgive some exaggeration since Kathy tells the story and she’s biased in Mike’s favor.

The Northwest attacks Kathy and Mike where they are most vulnerable — through their children — and makes them question their commitment to each other.

Mrs. Mike speaks eloquently of the need to maintain a sense of perspective: Parents whose children have burned to death don’t fret over burned toast.

That’s a lesson worth learning.Identification of review of novel that wasn't a bestseller but has become a classic.

And Mrs. Mike is a charming teacher.

Mrs. Mike by Benedict & Nancy Freedman
Coward-McCann, 1947; 312 p.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Darkness at Noon peeks into Soviet Russia

“The cell door slammed behind Rubashov.”

With those words, Arthur Koestler hurls readers into the life — and impending death — of ex-Commissar of the People Rubashov, a man so powerful and so invisible that his full name is needed for identification only on his cell door.

Identification of review of novel that wasn't a bestseller but has become a classic.Rubashov had been expecting, dreading arrest.

He knows his fate because he has been responsible for the disappearance of many others.

Readers must piece together Rubashov’s story from his memories, tap-coded conversations with other prisoners, and the interrogations.

He had risen through the ranks of the Party, finally acquiring diplomatic status.

His work with foreigners abroad provided ample facts that could be manipulated when Number 1, the party head himself, wanted Rubashov out of the way.

Rubashov had learned to see behind the Party’s rhetoric even while complying with its demands. He was not a subversive, as charged. He was, however, tired of the whole political machine.

Rubashov writes in his diary, “The fact is: I no longer believe in my infallibility. That is why I am lost.”

His interrogations include some of the milder forms of torture. Rubashov isn’t broken, just worn down.

The last straw is when his interrogator is replaced: He, too, has been found expendable.

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Trans. Daphne Hardy. Scribner Classics, ©1941. 272 p.
My grade: A

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

About the author: The Budapest-born Koestler was a communist in the 1930s and spent time in the Soviet Union. He left the party in 1938, was captured by Fascist forces in Spain and sentenced to death. The British intervened, and Koestler went to France where he was again arrested for his political views. Released in 1940, he went to England where he lived until his death in 1983.

Love on the Dole: Doleful view of past and future

Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole is a bleak novel set in in industrial England in the years between the First and Second World Wars.

The technological expertise that had made wholesale slaughter possible in 1914 is being directed toward making wholesale poverty possible in 1934.

Man and woman with infant are on cover of Love on the Dole.
Cover of 1976 paperback version of Love on the Dole

Harry Hardman, 14, is through with school. Scorning his parents’ advice, Harry apprentices himself at the Marlowe manufacturing plant for seven years.

Harry sees badge #2510 as his ticket to training and a high-paying job as an engineer.

He learns there’s no training, no ticket to upward mobility.

When he finishes his apprenticeship, he learns one more thing: There’s no job.

With a wife and child to support, Harry does what he has to.

He joins the line of the unemployed.

Identification of review of novel that wasn't a bestseller but has become a classic.Love on the Dole lacks the rounded character development we expect in today’s novels, and the dialect takes a bit of getting used to, but those deficiencies only add to Greenwood’s picture of how the deck is stacked against ordinary men in the age of increasingly intelligent machines.

Here’s a passage in which 14-year-old Harry consults the Marxist labor organizer when he first senses Marlowe’s has no intention of training him for a career:

‘You’re part of a graft, Harry,’ [Larry Meath] said: ‘All Marlowe’s want is cheap labour; and the apprentice racket is one of their ways of getting it. Nobody’ll teach you anything simply because there’s so little to be learnt. You’ll pick up all you require by asking questions and watching others work. You see, all this machinery’s being more simplified year after year until all it wants is experienced machine feeders and watchers. Some of the new plant doesn’t even need that. Look in the brass-finishing shop when you’re that way. Ask the foreman to show you that screw-making machine. That can work twenty-four hours a day without anybody going near it. Your apprenticeship’s a swindle, Harry. The men they turn out think they’re engineers same as they do at all the other places, but they’re only machine minders. Don’t you remember the women during the war?’

‘What women?’ Harry asked, troubled by what Larry had said.

‘The women who took the places of the engineers who’d all served their time. The women picked up straightaway what Marlowe’s and the others say it takes seven year’s apprenticeship to learn,’ a wry smile: ‘Still, if you want to be what everybody calls an “engineer”, you’ve no choice but to serve your seven years. I hear that they’re considering refusing to bind themselves in contracting to provide seven years’ employment. There is a rumour about that there aren’t to be any more apprentices. You see, Harry, if they don’t bind themselves, as they have to do in the indentures, they can clear the shop of all surplus labour when times are bad. And things are shaping that way, now,” a grin: ‘You’ve no need to worry, though. You’ve seven years’ employment certain.’

What is most striking about Love on the Dole is now much it feels like 2017 America. If Harry lived in Pennsylvania today, he would be a Trump supporter.

Love on the Dole will let you experience the pain and anger that fuels them.

It may well also foretell what’s ahead in America in the next 20 years.

Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood
©Walter Greenwood, 1933; published by Johnathan Cape
My copy: Penguin Books Ltd., 1976; paperback, 254 pp.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Alice Adams seeks to rise above adolescence

dust jacket of Alice Adams + note about the accompanying review

Alice Adams lives with her bickering parents and slouching younger brother, Walter, in a begrimed house in an industrial American city at the end of World War I.

Alice is unhappily unmarried.

Alice’s attempts to set local fashions draws ridicule from girls with money and social standing.

Mrs. Adams is constantly nagging her husband about not providing the children with the advantages money can buy.

When Arthur Russell comes to town, Alice thinks he’s her last chance to make something of herself.

Mrs. Adams finally convinces her husband that the only chance Alice has of happiness is for him to lay aside his scruples, quit his job at Lamb and Company, and start a plant to manufacture glue using a process Mr. Lamb had paid him to develop years before.

When it comes out that Walter has been embezzling at work, the family’s hopes of upward mobility are crushed forever.

Mr. and Mrs. Adams are vivid characters, and Booth Tarkington makes Alice and Walter very believable young adults trapped in adolescence.

It’s easy to see where Alice get’s her petulance and drama, where Walter gets his refusal to face facts.

Like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Tarkington’s Alice Adams shows the effects of on the children of a silly mother mated to a husband without the moral fiber to counterbalance his wife’s bad influence.

Alice Adams ends on an upbeat note, but that note isn’t strong enough to overcome the impression that Alice will never get a husband and never be satisfied either without one or with one.


Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington, Grosset & Dunlap, 1921. 434 pp.


This review is one of the Great Penformances’ occasional reviews of influential novels that didn’t make the bestseller list.  Although Alice Adams was not a bestseller for the prolific Booth Tarkington, he won his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Alice Adams. His first, in 1919, was for The Magnificent Ambersons.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

God’s Little Acre

Never prosperous even in the best of times, during the Great Depression Ty Ty Walden and his extended family are trying to get by in rural Georgia on nothing but libido, hostility, and holes.

Dust jacket of God's Little Acre, first edition.Ty Ty has turned over to black sharecroppers the responsibility for the cotton and vegetable crops on which the family depends.

Ty Ty, his son Shaw and son-in-law Buck spend their days digging for gold.

They’ve dug up most of the farm except God’s Little Acre, the proceeds of which Ty Ty has devoted to the church.

Whenever Ty Ty gets a feeling that the mother lode lies beneath God’s Little Acre, he moves the boundaries of the acre.

Believing in “scientific” knowledge that albinos have miraculous powers to find gold, Ty Ty and the boys capture an albino they learn is working nearby.

Ty Ty summons daughter Rosamond and her husband, Will, an unemployed mill worker, to come help them dig in the place the albino points out.

Will and Buck have never gotten along.

Buck thinks, correctly, that Will is after his wife, Griselda.

Shaw thinks whatever Buck thinks.

It’s not long before the three men come to blows.

Ty Ty, Rosamund, and Griselda go to wheedle money from another of Ty Ty’s sons, Jim Leslie.

Jim Leslie abandoned his father’s gold-diggings for real estate investments.

One look at Griselda, and Jim Leslie is determined to have her.

There are more characters and more couplings, but you get the idea. By comparison to God’s Little Acre, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a a moral treatise.

Ty Ty sums up the point of the novel thus:

God put us in the bodies of animal and tried to make us act like people. That was the beginning of trouble. If He had made us like we are, and not called us people, the last one of us would know how to live. A man can’t live, feeling himself from the inside, and listening to what the preachers say. He can’t do both, but he can do one or the other. He can live like we were made to live, and feel himself on the inside or he can live like the preachers say, and be dead on the inside….When you try to take a woman or a man and hold him off all for yourself, there ain’t going to be nothing but trouble and sorrow the rest of your days.

The term God’s little acre has come to stand for hypocrisy, setting aside something worthless for God while living without any regard for Him.

That really doesn’t fit the novel.

The Waldens shouldn’t be called hypocrites: They haven’t enough moral sense to rise that far.


This is one of GreatPenformances’ occasional reviews of notable novels that didn’t make the bestseller lists. First published in 1933, God’s Little Acre  didn’t make the bestseller list or win a Pulitzer Prize, but Erskine Caldwell’s novel has become an American classic.  The edition I read: God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell.  The Modern Library, 1961. 303 pp.

Now In November is beautiful and enduring

Now in November was Josephine Winslow Johnson’s first novel. Although it didn’t become a popular bestseller, critics showered praise on the book and its author. The year following its publication, the Pulitzer committee awarded Johnson its 1935 prize for best novel, a rare achievement for a writer’s first novel.


Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson ©1934 ©1962.


Cover of 1961 edition of Now in November shows women doing farm work.Arnold Haldemarne had done well in the lumber factories through persistent hard work. Suddenly, his peace and security vanished overnight, swallowed up in the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

Haldemarne takes his wife and three daughters back to the mortgaged farm his family had owned since the Civil War.

The Haldemarne women, Willa and daughters Kerrin, Marget, and Merle, fall in love with the land.

But as the novel’s narrator, Marget, observes, her father doesn’t see the land’s beauty, and he “hadn’t the resignation a farmer has to have.”

The family suffers one misfortune after another until there are only Mr. Haldemarne and daughters Marget and Merle left.

Despite what sounds like novel built of gloom and misery, Now in November has a lyric quality that lifts the novel beyond the doldrums.

Johnson makes even the mad Kerrin and her gloomy father individuals deserving of both pity and respect.

Their gardens are dead, but the land is beautiful.

The Haldemarnes are driven far beyond endurance, yet they endure.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni


This is another in the GreatPenformances series of occasional reviews of notable novels. The cover shown above is from Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson,  afterward by Nancy Hoffman. The Feminist Press, 1991, 231 pp.

Journey in the Dark casts light on early 20th century

Martin Flavin’s fictional memoir Journey in the Dark traces the footsteps of Sam Braden, who, his best friend says, is “a lonely man, going nowhere, in the dark.”

Sam grows up poor, the son of a honest woman of good character and a lazy adventurer who ran out of money in the Mississippi Riverbank town of Wyattville, Iowa, in the 1880s.

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Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin

Harper & Brothers, 1943.  The Franklin Library Limited Edition, 1978,

Illus. Charles Hamrick, 456 pp. My grade: A-.


Sam decides early in life that he doesn’t want to remain poor. He also decides he wants to marry Eileen Wyatt.

All of Wyattsville, including Eileen, knows she is destined to marry her cousin Neill Wyatt.

Sam works from the age of 10, making enough money to marry Eileen, but not enough to make her love him instead of Neill.

Though Sam spends his life trying to live down the ignominy of growing up poor, he never escapes his Wyattville roots. His family is intertwined with others in town on both sides of the tracks.

After he’s made his millions, Sam returns to Wyattville in time to see the sleepy town transformed by America’s preparations for World War II.

Through Sam, Flavin shows how the social and economic conditions of childhood influence the kind of adults Sam, his siblings, and his peers become.

Flavin won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for this novel.

The book deserves it.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Extra review sounds like Halloween novel

Dust Jacket for Journey in the Dark 1st edition notes it won 1943 Harper PrizeOn Tuesday, I’m going to run one of my occasional extra reviews of vintage novels that didn’t make the bestseller list when they were first published but have made names for themselves since.

Since Halloween is right around the corner, I’ve chosen a novel that sounds like it ought to be reading for Halloween: Journey in the Dark.

Come back Tuesday to find out if novelist Martin Flavin’s 1943 novel is about ghosts or vampires and to discover why it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944.

Funny novels for April Fool’s Day reading

We here in the Northeaster U.S. have had a long, hard winter.

We’re ready to enjoy some sunshine.

Even if the temperature doesn’t climb above 40 tomorrow, you can bask in the warmth of smiles with one of these funny vintage novels.

The Reivers

The Reivers is a folksy, rambling tale William Faulkner puts in the mouth of Lucius Priest,  an old man telling an “when I was your age” tell to his grandson.

Lucius recounts how in 1905 when he was 11, he and two pals who worked at the family’s freight business borrowed his grandfather’s automobile and drove  from Jefferson, Mississippi, up to Memphis, Tennessee.

One of the men traded the automobile for a horse, intending to win—how could they not win?—repurchase the auto with part of the proceeds, and come back home ahead of the game.

The Reivers has the kind of corny absurdity that’s a hallmark of country folk who know how to entertain themselves when nothing much is happening.

Fran

If The Reivers is humor for humor’s sake, Fran is humor for satire’s sake.

Writing in 1912, John Breckenridge Ellis uses Fran to satirize the “deserving orphan” novel formula that was wildly popular from the time of Charles Dickens until World War II, when the supply of orphans in the US and Britain dried up.

Orphaned after the death of her mother, Fran seeks out the scoundrel who abandoned her late mother, announces she plans to make his home her home, and does.

Ellis makes Fran’s father a hypocritical philanthropist, which give Ellis the chance to lampoon the pseudo-religious as well as the orphan novel formula.

Fran’s youthful appearance—she’s nearly 20 but looks about 13—allow Ellis to put her through the typical experiences of all fictional rescued orphans, such as going to school, dressing properly, and learning to be polite.

Fran’s school experiences are a hoot. Here’s a sample of what happens:

“Fran,” [school superintendent] Abbott reasoned, “if we put you in a room where you can understand the things we try to teach, if we make you thorough—”

“I don’t want to be thorough,” she explained, “I want to be happy. I guess all that schools were meant to do is to teach folks what’s in books, and how to stand in a straight line. The children in Class A, or Class B have their minds sheared and pruned to look alike; but I don’t want my brain after anybody’s pattern.”

Claire Ambler

In Claire Ambler, Booth Tarkington uses humor to edify.

Claire Ambler is an American heiress with unswerving loyalty to herself.  She’s a flapper of the jazz age, blissfully seeing herself as the center of the world.

“All her life—even when she was a child—she had seemed to be not one person but two. One was an honest person and the other appeared to be an artist. The honest person did the feeling and most of the thinking; but the artist directed her behaviour and cared about nothing except picturesque effects.”

Tarkington lets Clair flap until it’s clear to readers, if not to Clair herself, that her self-centeredness is not simply funny: It’s downright dangerous.

Sources

The Reivers is readily available from libraries and online book sources in a a variety of editions and formats. There’s also a film version, if you’d rather view than read.

Fran is available for download free at Project Gutenberg.

Claire Ambler is not available either through Project Gutenberg or in re-issue. I recommend you try WorldCat to see if it is available in a library near you.

Three Flavors of Romance for Novel-Lovers

Guys, did Miley Cyrus turn you down for Valentine’s Day?

Sketch of fantiful castle high up mountain.
Castle in the air. How romantic!

Gals, do you think the only appropriate accessories for your little black dress tonight would be thermal underware and two pairs of socks?

Or perhaps you feel like you’re coming down with the flu?

Whatever the reason you’re planning to stay by your own hearth Valentine’s Day, here are three novels that aren’t too long or too cerebral for a cozy evening at home.

Graustark

Graustark is a romance in the princess-and-castle style.

It’s love at first sight for Grenfall Lorry on an east-bound train from Denver.  He’ll absolutely die if he can’t marry the lovely Miss Guggenslocker.

When Miss Guggenslocker sails for Europe, Lorry isn’t far behind. He tracks her down, only to find she’s really the princess of Graustark.

Can an American commoner win the heart and hand of a princess?

George Barr McCutcheon gives the Lorry moves worthy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, so it’s not too gushy for guys. And the Princess has a streak of independence that feminist readers will applaud.

The novel’s available for free download to your preferred digital reading device at Project Gutenberg.

Queed

Queed is a droll romance about a most unromantic young man and the young woman whose tough love makes him human.

Sharlee tells Queed  his "cosmos is all ego."
Sharlee tells Queed his “cosmos is all ego.”

Queed is totally absorbed in his own affairs–he’s writing the definitive text on evolutionary sociology–when Sharlee Weyland takes pity on him.

She finds him a job that, with his own dogged determination, enables him to grow beyond the limits of his stifling childhood. From being pathetic, he becomes loveable and loving.

Queed is also available to download free at Project Gutenberg. The author is Henry Sydnor Harrison.

Gone With the Wind

My third recommendation is an old staple of romance literature: Gone With the Wind. This classic is still under copyright protection, but if your local library doesn’t have one, you can pick up a copy for a few dollars at an online publisher such as AlibrisABEbooks,  or Amazon.

If you know the novel just from the movie version, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how good the print version is. Margaret Mitchell’s prose flows and her characters develop organically.

Although the novel is long, it’s fast reading. After all, you already know the basic plot, right?

There you have three options to help you pass a romantic evening alone in the comfort of your favorite chair.

Project Gutenberg