After posting my final review of the 940 bestselling novels of the twentieth century before Christmas, I collapsed in front of the TV to binge-watch the Masterpiece “Inspector Morse” videos.
That done, I pulled out my 1,176-page paperback edition of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s “…And Ladies of the Club” and began rereading it. It was even better the second time around.
This time, in addition to getting the story line, I was able to appreciate the historical context. Watching the Trump presidency encouraged people to think nothing like it had ever happened before. Santmyer’s novel made me realize how much present day history echoes 19th century history.
People don’t change much, and it’s people that are the elements of history.
Here are a few quotes that seemed particularly timely.
Defeat never converts. It is to the defeated what persecution is to the persecuted. The cause becomes daily more precious, and devotion to it a more sacred duty.
We acted for the best. People almost always do, and so often it turns out wrong.
People always have to face up to what they’re by nature least well equipped to face.
If you’ve not read Helen Hooven Santmyer’s novel, I can’t recommend it too highly. It’s a whopping big book—perhaps enough to get you through the pandemic—and you have to pay close attention , but the novel is worth the effort.
Hearts in Atlantis is probably the best Stephen King bestseller people will never read. Its five interconnected stories probe 1960s history as experienced in small towns by baby boomer Americans who remember the draft.
“Low Men in Yellow Coats” is about Bobby Garfield, age 11 in 1960, being raised by his widowed mother in Harwich, Connecticut. A man who moves into the third-floor apartment introduces Bobby to The Lord of the Flies. His summer experiences teach him that evil isn’t confined to novels.
Next, the title story is about college kids—Bobby isn’t among them—who get hooked on playing the card game Hearts for a nickel-a-point, oblivious to the Vietnam War and how academic failure could kill them. The main character in this story straightens out only after watching—and laughing at—a disabled student who risked expulsion and possibly death from exposure to hang an antiwar message decorated with peace signs on a campus building.
A final three stories explore the post-war experiences of Bobby and other boys from Harwich.
Millennials and Generation Z readers, if they know what books are, won’t read Hearts in Atlantis: There’s no supernatural here. All the terrifying elements are expressions of human nature.
By literary law, every prolific novelist is required to write about two look-a-like individuals who change places.
Danielle Steel fulfills her obligation with Mirror Image, a preposterous story about the Henderson twins, who come of age just as World War I erupts in Europe.
Olivia, the elder sister by 11 minutes, and Victoria are distinguishable only by a tiny mole that one sister has on her right hand, the other on the left. The sisters are very close, but very different.
Olivia is the dutiful, domestic daughter to their father, who turned elderly when his wife died birthing the twins.
Committed to women’s suffrage, smoking cigarettes, and driving motor cars, Victoria is sure of herself, naïve, and totally shocked when the man by whom she’s pregnant won’t divorce his wife for her.
To prevent a scandal, Mr. Henderson arranges a marriage for Victoria with his lawyer, a widower with a young son.
Victoria hates children, hates her boring husband, and wishes her father had pushed Olivia off on Charles Dawson instead of her.
You know what happens. The only open question for Steel to settle is which of the sisters gets killed off in order for the story to end happily.
On the outside of The Ghost are two 1990s divorce stories. In one, Carole Waterson divorces her husband (who thought they were blissfully happy) just as Charlie’s architectural firm recalls him from London to New York.
In the other, sportscaster and former Olympic ski champion Pierre Vironnet leaves his wife, Francesca, and their eight-year-old daughter, Monique, for a younger woman.
Charlie finds his company’s NYC office old-fashioned. Management won’t listen to reason. They gives Charlie a leave of absence, hoping he’ll quit.
Charlie decides to go to Vermont, but snow stops him in Shelburne Falls, Mass, where Francesca and Monique are already living.
Charlie rents a haunted house from an elderly widow, a miniature chateau Frenchman Francois de Pellerin built around 1800 for his English wife, Sarah Ferguson, who came to America alone to escape her abusive husband. In the attic, Charlie finds Sarah’s diaries (written in just after the American Revolution in 1990s prose), which inspire him to start his life over.
Before the temperature rises above freezing, Charlie and Francesca, passionately in love, are sitting on the historical society steps in a 30-inch snowfall.
The Ghost is not one of Danielle Steel’s best plots.
Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is a rarity: A Civil War novel that isn’t written in clichés.
At Petersburg, Confederate soldier Inman was fatally wounded but he survived anyway. In chapter 1, he steps from a hospital window and starts for Cold Mountain, hoping Ada has waited for him.
Ada had come to Cold Mountain with her father. Inman wrangled an introduction. Before he left, she and Inman had an understanding. While Inman was away, Ada’s father died.
Ada is educated, but she has no domestic skills. On her own, she couldn’t survive. A neighbor sends Ruby to Ada. Ruby can’t read or write, but she can bargain. She offers to teach Ada how to run a farm. They’ll work together, eat together, but not live together. “Everybody empties their own night jar,” Ruby says.
While Inman hikes home, trying to stay healthy and avoid being caught as a deserter, the women try to keep a roof over their heads, stockpile food and fuel for the winter, and avoid marauding soldiers.
Frazier makes his characters and settings come alive in prose that never uses an unfamiliar word when a familiar one will work, never tells what he can show.
Danielle Steel’s Silent Honor is a romance played out during one of the ugliest episodes of American history: the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Hiroko Takashimaya’s father, a Japanese college professor, sends his 18-year-old daughter to study for one year in California. Hiroko has no desire to do anything other than be a good wife and mother, but she is a dutiful daughter and will do as her father wishes.
Hiroko finds her American-born cousins are totally American. Her uncle, a Stanford University political science professor, and her aunt, a nurse, regard her Japanese habits as quaint as her kimonos. Only Peter Jenkins, Uncle Tak’s assistant, seems to value her Hiroko’s Japanese heritage.
When the family is sent to Tule Lake detention center, Peter visits every day. Inevitably, he and Hiroko become lovers. When he’s posted overseas, Hiroko is carrying his child.
Steel makes Hiroko’s homesickness and her dedication to fulfilling what she regards as her obligations to her father and her American relatives totally believable. However, she fails to make Hiroko’s misery at college and at the detention center more personal than an encyclopedia entry.
Steel’s readers and Japanese Americans deserve better treatment.
James A. Michener’s Mexico opens with these words:
I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind. And since it had not yet happened, I had been ordered to get photographs, too.
Clearly, this isn’t the standard Michener formula.
The journalist is Norman Clay. Born and reared in Toledo, Mexico, he left for the US in 1938 after the Mexicans confiscated oil wells his family owned. Clay served in the American armed World War II, and worked as a journalist ever since.
Clay, 52, is back in his hometown to cover a bullfight that’s rumored to be a confrontation the equivalent of murder.
He revisits places he knew as a childhood, tracing his roots to Mexico’s three primary population groups: Indians, Spaniards, and English. Readers get to see how differently pivotal historical personages and events were viewed by each of the three groups.
Some of the historical facts are grisly: men’s beating hearts ripped out of them to appease a stone god, nuns burned alive, women made to work in a silver mine, never seeing daylight.
With the brutality, there’s also art, music, public service, bullfighting, and an ending with just the right degree of happy ending for a 52-year-old journalist.
Danielle Steel presents Jewels as Sarah Whitfield’s 75th birthday retrospective.
As a Manhattan debutante, Sarah fell for the wrong man. The marriage ended in a divorce that humiliated her into seclusion. To get her out of her funk, her parents took her to Europe where she met and married the much older William, Duke of Whitfield.
As the Nazis mobilized, William was called to military service. With an infant son and another baby on the way, Sarah stayed in a rural French chateau occupied by Germans while he’s gone. Although believed dead, William survived the war.
The couple had three more children and built a business buying jewels from war survivors who need money to rebuild their lives.
After William’s death, Sarah ran the jewelry stores and tried to cope with the problems her adult children cause.
Steel would have readers believe that, Sarah, despite her lack of training for anything, could refinish woodwork, direct a multi-national business, and assist in the hospital when casualties are heavy.
The historical content is equally preposteous. In rural France under Nazi occupation, Sarah and her children never so much as miss a meal.
Jewel is a novel full of characters but no real people, glass passed off as a gem.
Night Over Water centers around a largely forgotten piece of 20th century aviation history: the luxury aircraft the Flying Clipper, which could land and take off from the ocean.
In Ken Follett’s novel, a few days after Britain declares war on German in 1939, the Clipper takes off on a 30-hour flight to New York. Some of the passengers are trying to avoid the war, others are trying to escape their pasts.
Weather conditions had to be just right for the Clipper. It couldn’t take off or land unless the waves were less than three feet high. Unless stars were visible, the aircraft had no way to navigate and could run out of fuel. Conserving fuel often meant going through storms rather than around them.
The spark for the drama is the presence on the plane of a mobster being returned to America for trial. His gang have kidnapped the pregnant wife of the Clipper’s engineer in order to force her husband to have the plane land in the ocean off Newfoundland where they can rescue him.
Follett’s characters are types familiar to novel readers. It’s the setting that produces the drama. Few writers can milk the drama from an historical setting to entertain and inform as Follett can.