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Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

In August, 1831, a few dozen slaves in Southampton, Virginia, revolted, slaughtering whites mercilessly.

The confession of the revolt’s leader, Nathaniel Turner, presented at his trial and subsequently published as a pamphlet, is the factual basis of William Styron’s novel.


The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
Random House, 1966, 1967; 428 p. 1967 bestseller #2. My grade: A.

sketch shows Nat being captured by white man

Nat Turner’s capture.


Nat’s mother was a cook, so Nat became a “house nigger.” The Turner family taught him to read and figure, gave him carpentry training, bought a Bible, and promised he’d be given his freedom at age 25.

By the time Nat was 25, faced with dwindling income from over-worked land, Turner family had sold all their possessions—including Nat—and left Virginia for good.

Nat’s freedom disappeared with Marse Samuel.

Nat’s Bible reading and his ache for companionship with like-minded people, gradually twist into the conviction that God wants him to lead a slave rebellion.

Styron avoids the familiar clichés of slave novels. Characters, both black and white, are victims of conditions they can’t control. The worst physical and mental suffering among blacks and whites occur among those least affluent even at the best of times.

Styron’s tale could easily be moved to Baltimore or St. Louis in 2015.

His novel is a wrenching reminder that how we treat individuals matters more than our opinions about race.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Light in the Clearing begins with its narrator saying, “Once upon a time I owned a watermelon.”

From that magical opening, Barton Baynes escorts readers through his Adirondacks childhood.


The Light in the Clearing: A Tale of the North County in the Time of Silas Wright
by Irving Bacheller.  Grosset & Dunlap, 1917. Illus. with scenes from the photoplay.
414 pp. 1917 bestseller #2. Project Gutenberg ebook #14150. My grade: B+.

Orphaned at 4, the lad is brought up by his Aunt Deel and Uncle Peabody, a poor, hardworking brother and sister.

A bright, polite child, Bart attracts the attention of Silas Wright Jr., then New York’s comptroller, later to be a U.S. senator.

Wright helps Bart get an education and enter law practice.

By himself, Bart attracts pretty Sally Dunkelberger. The two plan to marry when both are 21.

Scene from photoplay version of The Light in The Clearing

In Light, Irving Bacheller combines the best features of the juvenile novel, historical fiction, romance, and coming of age novels—and does them all well.

The chapters in which Bart tells of his childhood convey the sense of a child’s view point, much in the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoirs. As he tells of his teens, you can feel the tug between Bart’s inbred values and his acquired desires.

Bacheller weaves all-but-forgotten tidbits of history into the novel, such as the New York State’s rent wars and Silas Wright’s refusal to be nominated for vice president in 1844. None of it seems pasted on or extraneous.

Whatever your tastes in novels, you’ll find something to like in this far-from-ordinary 1917 bestseller.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In the early 1900s, readers relied on Mary Johnson to supply them regularly with novels about lower socioeconomic class individuals of superior ability who participate in history-making events.

In Lewis Rand, Johnson pulls out an unexpected ending that raises the novel above the pot-boiler class.

On river path, two mounted gentlemen in top hats fight while trying to control their horses

Lewis Rand fights Fairfax Cary, who thinks him allied with Aaron Burr.


Lewis Rand by Mary Johnson
F. C. Yohn illustrator. Houghton Mifflin, 1908.
[506+ pages] 1908 bestseller #7.
Project Gutenberg ebook #14697. My grade: B.

Lewis Rand wants to study law, but his father won’t even let Lewis attend school.

Their neighbor Thomas Jefferson intercedes on the boy’s behalf.

By 1804, Jefferson’s help and Lewis’s own ambition have marked him for at least the governorship, perhaps the presidency.

Lewis has an an accident outside the home of the pro-Federalist Churchills. While he recuperates in a Churchill bedroom, Jacqueline Churchill a proposal of marriage from his Federalist opponent.

Jacqueline marries Lewis against her family’s wishes.

After their marriage, Lewis becomes increasingly ambitious.

After turning turns down the nomination for Virginia governor, he begins corresponding in cipher with the audacious Aaron Burr about America’s newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase territory.

Johnson keeps the complicated political background understandable.

Where she falls down is in not allowing characters to speak for themselves.

The novel ends much as The Cruel Sea will end decades later. The one significant difference is that Nicholas Monserrat made readers care about George Ericson.

Johnson doesn’t make readers care about Lewis Rand.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Winston Churchill’s narrator confides right away that Conison is going to have two love stories and revolve mainly around the ungainly figure of Jethro Bass.

That description is like saying Moby Dick is about fishing.


Coniston by Winston Churchill

Florence Scovel Shinn, illus. MacMillan, 1906. 540 p. 1906 bestseller #1.
Project Gutenberg Ebook #3766.
My grade B+.


In New Hampshire in the mid-1800s, uneducated, stuttering Jethro falls hard for Cynthia Ware.

Jethro Bass sits on a porch, hands in pockets, legs crossed,

Jethro Bass is a patient man.

Cynthia returns Jethro’s affection, but deplores his political ambition to rise above his station.

Though they part and marry others, each remains the other’s true love.

After Cynthia’s death, Jethro becomes friend to her husband and “Uncle Jethro” to the daughter with the mother’s name.

Jethro both loves and respects Cynthie, but will he give up his political power for her?

Will Cynthie hold to her principles or bend to win the man she loves?

Churchill works things out in proper romantic fashion, but not before he’s treated readers to a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse into grassroots politics (drawing, no doubt, on his experience as a New Hampshire legislator and candidate for governor.)

In Churchill’s pen, Jethro Bass becomes a figure as distinctive and memorable as any creation by Thomas Hardy or Anthony Trollope.

Coniston fairly begs to become a Masterpiece Theatre presentation.

Until it is (and afterward) read the print version.

It is a gem.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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In Mr. Britling Sees It Through, H. G. Wells gives an account of World War I from the perspective of an intellectual with an optimistic view of human nature.

The title character, Mr. Britling, is a moderately well-known writer, who pens essays and articles from his study in Essex, England.


Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells

Macmillan, 1916. Project Gutenberg ebook #14060.
1916 bestseller #4. My grade B+.


Close up photo of HG Wells shows bushy eyebrows, tired eyes, and stubby mustache

Up until the German invasion, Britling tells anyone who will listen that the German people don’t want war.

When war is declared, Britling has to confront both the German support for the war and the British lack of preparedness for that war.

Soon he has to face harsher realities.

Britling is turned down for military service.

Members of his household, including his eldest son, enlist.

Britling’s understanding of war morphs from pins on a map into a girl delivering a telegram.

His political opinions change coincidentally.

Wells based Mr. Britling on his own experience. Indeed, the development of Britling’s thought as events unfold in Europe suggests reportage rather than imagination.

The plot, too, seems determined by historical events rather than story requirements.

Instead of fictionalizing, Wells follows the war so readers can have a sharp, nuanced perspective on one of the most significant events of the 20th century.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Arch of Triumph is Erich Maria Remarque’s psychological novel about a German refugee in Paris on the eve of World War II.

Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque

Unable to practice medicine legally after the Gestapo seized his identity papers and tortured him, a once-famous surgeon has fled to Paris. Between deportations, Dr. Ravic performs illegal operations for inept doctors and treats whores in a brothel.


Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque

Walter Sorell & Denver Lindley, trans. D. Appleton-Century, 1945. 455 p.

1946 Bestseller #7. My grade: A. 1946 Bestseller #7. My grade: A.


Ravic drifts into a relationship with singer Joan Madou but remains emotionally dead, a “refugee from everything that is permanent,” including love.

His only hope is for revenge.

Encountering his Gestapo enemy, Ravic kills without regret, but also without satisfaction.

As soon as France declares war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, refugees are packed off to a concentration camp on a night “so dark that one could not even see the Arc de Triomphe.”

But Ravic goes into the darkness carrying his instruments and medicine, telling others, “Don’t be afraid.”

Arch of Triumph is not easy reading.

Remarque deliberately makes readers unravel the characters’ histories: Refugees must conceal themselves.

And the idea of civilians caught in a military operation is gloomy and painful.

In ’39, the German refugee was interned in France. Today, the Syrian refugee is interned in Turkey or Greece.

Same song, different verse.

And that is why Arch of Triumph is still worth reading today.

 © 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Steven Fox arrives in New Orleans in 1825, broke and friendless.

By his gambling and his good looks, he makes a fortune and buys land, working along side his slaves to make it prosper.


The Foxes of Harrow by Frank Yerby

Dial Press, 1946. 408 p. 1946 bestseller #6. My grade: C-.


Before long Harrow is the greatest plantation in Louisiana, its manor house a gem on the Mississippi.

Steven marries Odalie Orceneaux by whom he has two children.

After her death he marries her sister, Aurore.

And on the side he has a quadroon mistress.

As Harrow grows more prosperous and influential, the South prepares for war. Steven lays aside his anti-secession principles to fight for the South.

In the introduction to The Foxes of Harrow, Frank Yerby makes the glory and ruin of Harrow Plantation almost palpable, but the story never lives up to its setting.

Yerby starts out writing about people in the pre-Civil War South, and ends up writing an historical novel about the South.

The characters, too, are not consistent.

Initially conniving, thieving, self-centered, and cruel, Steven magically becomes loyal, generous, and statesmanlike by the book’s end.

The best thing to be said for The Foxes of Harrow is that it’s better than its sequels.

But it’s no Gone With the Wind.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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