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Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

Since Thanksgiving is just days away and kindergarten kids are drawing pictures of Pilgrims in funny hats, today seemed like a good time to recommend rereading The Winthrop Woman, Anya Seyton’s  historical novel about one of America’s more famous — some would say more infamous — Puritans.

Book cover shows Winthrop Woman alone, wearing red cape.

I read this version of The Winthrop Woman as a teen.

“The Winthrop Woman” was Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, born 1610 to Thomas and Anne Winthrop Fones. Anne was sister to John Winthrop, who was to become an early settler of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and later its Governor.

Elizabeth married one of her first cousins, a son of John Winthrop, which is how she got the moniker “the Winthrop Woman.”

Elizabeth led a fascinating life. (At least it’s fascinating for readers; living it must have been an entirely different matter.)  She had bad luck with husbands in an era when having a husband was practically a requirement for survival.

But she survived, as Seyton’s novel shows.  Today “the Winthrop woman” is considered one of the founders of Greenwich, Connecticut.

She’s also an ancestor of Howard Dean, Vermont governor and 2004 presidential candidate; aviator Amelia Earhart; former Secretary of State John Kerry; and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

The portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop shown below was done by English painter George Richmond who lived about 200 years after Winthrop.  He’s made her appear far more genteel than did the book jacket artist.

Portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop

Portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop by George Richmond.

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Of the nearly 700 novels I’ve reviewed here at Great Penformances, The Silent Places is the most memorable.

The 1904 bestseller by Stewart Edward White is not a great novel—I didn’t give it an A rating the first time I read it—but just thinking about the novel’s ending is enough to bring tears to my eyes.

Hound sniffs deep into snow.

The hound sniffed deep, filling his nostrils with the feather snow .

If there were a male equivalent of chick lit, The Silent Places would be its exemplar.

The story: Two guys chase an outlaw Indian in the frozen prairie north of Lake Ontario in seventeenth century America.

The novel is well illustrated, but it’s White’s text, rather than the illustrations that show how the two very different men grow and bond.

What’s most amazing is there’s scarcely any conversation in the book. I have to reread the book (Project Gutenberg has it) just to see if I can figure out how White pulls that off.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

 

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In The House on the Strand, an historical novel meets a sci-fi novel.

Medieval Cornwall coast scene on novel cover

This bestseller mixes ’60 drug culture into history.

The two don’t get along well.

Dick Young gladly accepts the offer of longtime friend’s Cornwall estate, Kilmarth, for his family for the summer. Dick and Magnus were in university together and remained close until Dick’s marriage.

Dick’s wife, Vita, disliked Magnus from their first meeting.

Magnus, an academic researcher, has secretly stumbled upon a drug that takes people back in time.

Magnus wants Dick to take it and report his findings.

The first dose transports Dick back the Kilmarth environs in the 14th century. Each time he takes a dose, he becomes more interested in the historical figures than in his own era.

When Magnus is found dead, apparently after attempting to commit suicide, the story twists to a halt.

Daphne du Maurier provides diagrams showing who married whom, but readers need a guide to who is sleeping with whom to make sense of the historical part of the book.

The 20th century portion makes more sense, but even though du Maurier has Dick narrate the story, both plots feel detached from him. Sadly, Du Maurier’s characters have no more personality than figures in someone else’s nightmare.

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, 1969. Book club edition, 308 pp. 1969 bestseller #10. My grade: C.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Naked woman being filmed in bed

Sex, TV camera and Robbins name dominate cover of The Inheritors.

The Inheritors combines steamy sex with stultifying descriptions of multi-million dollar financial deals.

To make things worse, Harold Robbins’ odd organization makes following the story difficult.

Steve Gaunt and Sam Benjamin are frenemies and business partners. Steve and Sam each have three-track minds: Women, booze, and business.

Needless to say there’s not a lot of character for Robbins to develop.

Robbins opens the novel with a chapter about the morning of a spring day in which Steve and Sam talk about things that mean nothing to readers.

Books one and two relate events of 1955-60 in New York from the viewpoints of Steve and Sam respectively.

Then there’s a chapter about the afternoon of the spring day.

Next books three and four relate events of 1966-65 in Hollywood from the viewpoints of Steve and Sam respectively.

Sam, the homely fat guy, is the more interesting of the two. The suave Steve with his nose in a balance sheet is not stimulating company for any reader.

What little interest there is in the novel is in the cultural history of how television disrupted the film industry, embraced rock music, and metamorphosed into the communications industry.

The Inheritors by Harold Robbins
Pocket Book Edition, 1971. 373 p. paper. 1969 bestseller #4. My grade: C-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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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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