“…And Ladies of the Club”

A lady dressed for 1868 club meeting on cover of “...And Ladies of the Club”
font and image recall 1860s

“…And Ladies of the Club” opens in 1868 as Congressman General Deming tells Waynesboro Female College graduates, “The hand that rocks the cradle is mightier than the hand that wields the sabre.”

The novel focused primarily on two graduates, Anne Gordon and Sally Rausch, reveals the truth underlying that cliché.

Both graduates are invited to become founding members of a local women’s literary club.

Sally accepts because she thinks the club might become influential in Waynesboro.

Anne accepts because Sally did: She can back out later.

Sally marries a German immigrant, Ludwig Rausch, a man with a passion for machinery and endowed with a business shrewdness equal to any Yankee’s.

Anne marries her childhood sweetheart, a doctor scarred by his experiences as a military surgeon and his family history.

Helen Hooven Santmyer traces the interwoven lives of the two women, their families, their small town, and America up until 1932.

Politics, wars, economic booms and depressions, social and technological changes are revealed the way people felt them.

“…And Ladies of the Club” is a marvelous work of historical fiction with an historical sweep and psychological intimacy equaling Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, John Galsworthy’s Forsythe novels, and Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown.

“…And Ladies of the Club”
by Helen Hooven Santmyer
Putnam’s. ©1982. 1176 p
1986 bestseller #6. My grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

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Love and War

collage of icons for North and South are on front cover of “Love and War”
Icons suggest splintered focus

In Love and War, volume two of John Jakes’ trilogy about America’s war between the states, Jakes shows there was nothing civil about it.

In North and South, knowing war was inevitable, George Hazard of Pennsylvania and Orry Main of South Carolina had vowed nothing would destroy their friendship forged at West Point Military Academy.

In Love and War Jakes shows the difficulty of keeping that vow.

In his struggle to follow a dozen members of the two families, Jakes writes chapters that are crazy quilts of story patches.

An extra line of leading signals a change of focus to a different character. The characters themselves are paper dolls moved around on a map.

Jakes’ stuffs the novel with historical trivia which, while interesting, underscore the disjointedness of his storytelling.

Jakes toils to show all his “good characters” developing sympathy for people who are not like them social, economically, or racially, but he doesn’t succeed.

The novel’s only nuanced interracial interaction that of southern belle Brett Hazard and freed slave she assists in running a school for orphaned Black children.

Love and War ultimately proves that in fiction, as in race relations, emotional ties can be built only with individuals, not with abstractions.

Love and War by John Jakes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1st ed. ©1984. 1019 p.
1984 bestseller #4. My grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Name of the Rose

Illustration of Apocalypse is front dust jacket image
14th century view of apocalypse

The Name of the Rose, one of the world’s all-time best-selling novels, is a fascinating Italian novel that most American readers will set aside before they finish chapter one.

The 14th century setting in which author Umberto Eco sets his tale is half the novel’s story.

In 1327, Italy was part of the Holy Roman Empire beset by religious and political turmoil. Two competing emperors had recently been elected; the real winner will be the one the Pope chooses.

The Pope has his own problems: People are increasingly vocal about the church’s immense wealth and power.

The Pope’s picked men are scheduled to arrive soon for a theological disputation—a debate to establish truth— at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy where a monk has died under suspicious circumstances.

The abbot has summoned Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar to investigate. Brother William brings young Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice, to assist him.

For a week, there’s a bizarre death a day for the pair to solve.

Eco adheres to the familiar hero and sidekick pattern, but the setting, culture, and passages in Latin will turn off American readers who lack the background and the curiosity to read demanding European fiction.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Translator: William Weaver
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ©1983. 502 p.
1983 bestseller #7. My grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Poland by James A. Michener

map of Poland with dust jacket of novel Poland superimposed on it
The inside cover map helps readers follow the action and the history in the novel.

Like many of James A. Michener’s other bestselling novels, Poland is a story about fictional characters whose lives allow Michener to show how historical events affected and were influenced by the real people who lived in that real place.

In Poland, the opening and closing chapters are set in 1981 as farmers in a fictional Polish farming community along the Vistula River try to organize a union, which the Soviets oppose: A union would give Polish farmers too much control over Russia’s food supply.

In the chapters in between, Michener traces Polish history forward from the 13th century when invaders from the East under Genghis Khan ravaged Poland.

From that period through 1918, Poland’s rulers kept its peasants tied to the land, little better than slaves.

Various of Poland’s neighbors sought to influence, control, or eliminate it in accordance with their own political aspirations: Poland disappeared entirely from the map of Europe for 123 years.

Russia succeeded after World War II in turning Poland into a Soviet satellite.

The sweep of the novel, the difficulties of Polish names, and the strangeness of Poland’s political system make for challenging reading, but it will reward readers with a better understanding of the corner of Europe that Vladimir Putin dominates today.

Poland by James A. Michener
Random House. 1st ed. ©1983. 556 p.
1983 bestseller #2. My grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Man from St. Petersburg

Dust jacket uses red type to suggest The Man from St. Petersburg is targeted for death.
Targeted man faces symbols of empires

In The Man from St. Petersburg, Ken Follett once again spins an imaginary tale around an actual attempt to win a war by misdirection. Here his focus is World War I.

All Europe knows war is inevitable: Germany has the continent’s strongest army and it wants Alsace and Lorraine back.

England is militarily weak. She and France will need a third ally against Germany.

The Czar wants an alliance with England; he’s sent Prince Orlov to London to seek one.

Winston Churchill taps the Earl of Walden to handle negotiations for England. Walden’s Russian wife is Orlov’s cousin.

Before their marriage, Lady Walden had a lover in St. Petersburg, a poor, militant radical; when her family found out, they had Feliks arrested and tortured. To save his life, she agreed to marry Lord Walden.

The couple have a daughter making her debut in society in 1914 just as Feliks, hardened by imprisonment in Siberia, has come to London to kill Orlov.

Compared to his ordinary blokes, Follett’s upper crust characters are two-dimensional, and unfortunately the focus in The Man is on the social and political elite.

Only Follett’s generous sprinkling of 1914 historical trivia raise the novel above the ordinary.

The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett
W. Morrow. © 1982. 323 p.
1982 bestseller #10. My grade: B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

North and South

images of steel mill and West Point cadet separated by words NORTH AND SOUTH from image of South Carolina plantation
the people are all 1-dimensional

Take all the novels you’ve ever read about America’s Civil War, put them in your Magic Bullet, push the on button, and you’d have John Jakes’s novel North and South.

The novel contrasts two families whose ancestors came to America in the 1600s.

The Mains were aristocratic French Protestants who settled in South Carolina.

The first Hazard in America was a working class English teen who had murdered his stepfather. That lad went to work in the Pennsylvania iron industry.

In 1842 Orry Main and Charles Hazard meet as plebes at the Military Academy at West Point. They become life-long friends despite their different temperaments and backgrounds.

Jakes follows the two men and their families up through Lincoln’s election and the South’s secession.

The dust jacket notes say the novel is “filled with memorable characters, many of them captured from the pages of history.”

Actually, all the memorable characters are from history.

Jakes gives his fictional characters labels and then moves them around like paper dolls.

It’s interesting that Congressman Daniel Boone proposed a bill to close the Military Academy, which was regarded contemptuously in both North and South, but historical trivia is insufficient compensation for characters who are stereotypes.

North and South by John Jakes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1st ed. ©1982. 740 p.
1982 bestseller #8. My grade: C

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Valley of Horses

Cover of “The Valley of Horses” shows Ayla, sling in hand, looking at horses
Ayla’s a whiz with her slingshot

For most of its length, Jean M. Auel’s The Valley of Horses* is two stories about prehistoric Europe.

In the first story,  a young woman who has been turned out of her adoptive home finds an unoccupied cave in a remote valley.

Ayla is tall, blonde, and beautiful, a skilled hunter, healer, and toolmaker.

She tames a wild colt and a great lion cub, but she’d rather have a human mate.

Meanwhile, 1,000 miles away, two human brothers are setting out to explore.

Their journey takes them to a riverside village where Thonolan meets and loses the love of his life.

Despondent, Thonolan packs to leave. Jondalar, fearing for his brother’s mental state, accompanies him, though he’d rather go back home.

After losing their boat and belongings, the brothers end up in the mountains where Thonolan is killed by Ayla’s lion and Jondalar—Did I mention he’s a gorgeous hunk?— is rescued by Ayla.

Valley is full of fascinating, esoteric information about prehistoric life, but Auel’s depictions of primitive men’s use of language is ludicrous. In one paragraph, strangers are bewildered by each other’s grunts; five sentences later they’re discussing fluid dynamics like engineers in a graduate seminar.

I’ve heard more plausible prehistoric male communication up the street at Bob’s Diner.

The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel
Crown. ©1982. 502 p.
1982 bestseller #6. My grade: C

*The Valley of Horses is the second novel in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children™ series (The Clan of the Cave Bear was the first) and the only one of the series to make the 20th century’s bestsellers list.

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni