Preserve and Protect taut political thriller

Washington DC buildings, 1st edition jacket of Preserve and Protect
First edition cover.

Preserve and Protect is a logical development  of the political landscapes Allen Drury envisioned in Advise and Consent (1959),  A Shade of Difference (1962),  and Capable of Honor (1966).

Allen Drury plunges readers into American politics as it might be played if violence becomes a political tool.

Sometime in the post-LBJ era, Air Force One has crashed, killing an American president on his return to Washington after garnering his party’s nomination.

The Speaker of the House, William Abbott, assumes the presidency until elections can be held. He carries on the policies of his predecessor, Harvey Hudson, keeping American troops in Africa and Panama and retaining Orrin Knox as Secretary of State.

That continuity brings Abbott into direct confrontation with a coalition of extremist groups out to control the presidency by electing Ted Jason, a man they think they can control.

Preserve and Protect is a stronger novel — there’s less author commentary — than the other three novels in Drury’s series.

Readers are left in no doubt as to Drury’s position, but here they have the pleasure of thinking they figured it out themselves.

The characters met in earlier novels seem to have grown more complex, the issues less clear.

The book slips from political novel toward political thriller.

Drury pulls all the threads together skillfully in a shocking — but totally logical — conclusion.


Preserve and Protect by Allen Drury
Doubleday, 1968. 394 pages. 1968 bestseller #6. My grade A-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Airport by Arthur Hailey: Details matter

runway is central element on dust jacket of AirportI read Airport in two big gulps two days ago.

Tonight I can scarcely remember the plot or the characters’ names, but the details are still vivid.

In Airport, Arthur Hailey weaves together several plots whose characters happen to be in a particular place, just as he did in Hotel.

In this case, the scene is the fictitious Lincoln International Airport in the overnight hours during a blizzard.

The story focuses primarily on Mel Bakersfeld, the airport’s general manager, who has a rocky marriage, a brother whose air controller job is pushing him toward suicide, and an aging airport no longer capable of meeting the demands of aviation in the post-JFK era.

Hailey works in a couple of plots, one quite implausible, to make the point that airports are dangerously inadequate from a safety perspective.

Hailey tackles the stereotypes about pilots and stewardesses with a story line about one such duo for whom Hailey can’t seem to muster much liking.

What Hailey does marvelously, however, is relay the nuts-and-bolts details of the unseen jobs — the maintenance crews, the ticket counter staff, the air traffic controllers — so readers feel like they are looking over their shoulders as they work.

Airport is worth reading just for that.


Airport by Arthur Hailey
Doubleday, 1968. 440 p. 1968 bestseller #1. My grade: B.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Christine is fake, not fiction

Alice Cholmondeley’s author’s note to Christine prefaces what Cholmondeley says are letters written to her by her daughter, Christine, who was studying in Germany the summer World War I began.

A note saying the publisher chose to alter names of some individuals reinforces the idea that the letters are true.


Christine by Alice Cholmondeley¹
©1917. 1917 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg eBook #12683. My grade: C .

Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to frontlines
Woman hands flowers to German soldier head to the front, 1 August 1914.

In fact, Christine is a work not merely of fiction, but fabricated propaganda.

The letters’ details provide the proof.

Christine tells her mother a host of “facts” that a parent would have known without telling: the family is poor, Christine is to be away only one year, that no one else in the family has a talent for violin.

Cholmondeley is very good at detail, which gives the story a sense of “this happened.”

The text is strewn with German terms that monolingual American readers will need to look up.

Cholmondeley goes to great lengths to show the Germans as a nation are cruel, brutal, greedy, power-hungry, that they wanted war because war fit in with their philosophy and ambitions.

The value of Christine for today’s readers is less about its story — which is slender — than about its rhetorical strategy. As a study in persuasion, it’s well worth careful examination.

Techniques that Cholmondeley uses against the Germans might be used today against Muslims or Methodists.


¹Alice Cholmondeley is a pen name of Elizabeth von Arnim, born Mary Annette Beauchamp, an Australian-born British novelist. By her first marriage she became Gräfin von Arnim-Schlagenthin, and by a second marriage, Countess Russell.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Major an amalgam of familiar plot lines

Canadian Expeditionary Forces artillerymen prepare shell as early Christmas present to Germany, Nov. 2016
Canadian artillerymen ready early Christmas package to Germans.

Larry Gwynne, normally an obedient 10-year-old, plays hooky from school with some other boys one spring day.

Challenged to prove himself in a fight, Larry refuses. The other boys say he’s a coward, like this Quaker mother.


The Major by Ralph Connor

1918 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg ebook #3249. My grade: C.


From that beginning, Ralph Connor produces a novel about how rural Canadians responded first to the threat and then to the fact of the first World War.

The plot is an amalgam of familiar story lines.

As the title suggests, Larry grows up to become a major in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.

There are several romances in the novel as Larry’s two sisters, some of their friends, and then Larry himself find true love.

There’s also a plot of sorts about Larry’s beloved mother, scrimping to supply the necessities her husband’s inept management deprives them of.

Connor doesn’t actually develop any of the plots: He merely drags them through the same pages together.

The novel is not a bad first draft, but it needs a good working over with a blue pencil to reduce the number of plots, and give more definition to the central characters, and smudge the outlines of the lesser ones.

Connor’s skills improved with practice, as his bestseller the following year shows.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Jungle is ferocious fiction

Anyone who could call Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle entertainment is morally bankrupt.

The novel, which rocked America in 1906, is exposé, propaganda, political theater.


The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Viking, 1905. 343 p. 1906 bestseller #6. My grade B-.


Corrupt Chicago politicians. Salmonella-tainted food. Sub-prime mortgages. Water supplies poisoned by industrial waste.

Sinclair exposed them all.first edition cover of The Jungle shows industrial age factories.

Sinclair weaves a journalist’s reporting around the fictional story of a Lithuanian peasant family that comes to the US for a better life.

They have little money, no English. The only person they know lives in Chicago, so that’s where they go.

They get jobs in the vast meat packing industry.

It’s brutally hard, dehumanizing work.

They can’t make a decent living.

They are dependent on credit.

One slip—an accident, an illness—and they may starve or freeze to death.

Sinclair is less interested in his characters as persons than as representatives. His omniscient narrator keeps readers from getting too close to them.

Scenes are Sinclair’s forté: Slaughterhouses, boarding houses, jails, saloons, and brothels are described in sickening detail.

Sinclair’s protagonist, Jurgis, finally comes to see that his personal problems are epidemic, systemic.

Jurgis becomes a socialist.

The socialists have one advantage over other workers: They believe someday things will be better.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

It Can’t Happen Here: Timely and Terrifying

In 1935, Europe was preparing for war against the Jews and Socialists and anybody else who didn’t care to knuckle under to the likes of Hitler and Mussolini.

Watching Europe fall into the clutches of dictators, Sinclair Lewis pondered how a dictator could come to power in America.

Novel title  "It Can't Happen Here" superimposed on photo of German army officers listening to Adolph Hitler.


It Can’t Happen Here: A Novel by Sinclair Lewis

Sun Dial Press, 1935. 458 p. 1936 bestseller #6 My Grade: B+.


It Can’t Happen Here opens as the Rotary Club in Fort Beulah, Vermont, makes patriotic speeches.

In the audience, newspaper editor Doremus Jessup views both the flag-waving and the potential for dictatorship with skepticism.

Before long, however, America elects Berzilius Windrip president and what couldn’t happen begins to happen.

First the “Minute Men” become Windrip’s private army.

Then civil rights are suspended to fight unspecified threats to national security.

Dissidents lose their jobs, go into concentration camps, are killed.

Jessup is drawn into the opposition.

The personalities are credible, the places recognizable, the situations horrifying.

The nightmarishness of the story is oddly intensified by the flatness of Lewis’s presentation: It’s as if none of the characters dares feel deeply.

Doremus doesn’t turn into a hero.

No one does.

That’s what’s terrifying about this once more timely novel.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Clansman: Racisim writ large, romance writ small

In his forward to The Clansman, Thomas Dixon says his novel shows how the Klu Klux Klan “against overwhelming odds…saved the life of a people.”

Readers can judge that for themselves.


The Clansman by Thomas Dixon

An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Illus.with scenes from photo-play The Birth of a Nation.
Grossett & Dunlap, 1905. 374 pages. Project Gutenberg EBook #26240.
1905 bestseller #4. My grade: C.


The novel opens April 10, 1865. Having won the war, Lincoln intends to win the peace by helping the South to recover.

Lincoln’s opposition includes Austin Stoneman, the power behind Congress.

Stoneman’s daughter and son have fallen for South Carolinians Ben and Margaret Cameron.

When Stoneman’s health requires a warm climate, Elsie and Phil select South Carolina for their father’s recuperation.

Quicker than you can butter a biscuit, Elsie and Phil turn Southern.

Ben Cameron organizes the Clan.

Stoneman recuperates in time to try to defeat the Clan.

You can guess the rest.

Stockman is the only interesting character in this dumb story, yet Dixon suggests no plausible explanation of Stoneman’s hatred of the South.

As a novel, The Clansman is a dud.

As a cultural and historical phenomenon, it’s dynamite.

I can’t recall a novel that gives a better sense of the nation’s emotional response to the Lincoln assassination, nor think of a better illustration of how Civil War mythology perpetuates itself in the South.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Readers are only winners at Battle of the Villa Fiorita

Dustjacked of the Battle of the Villa FioritaRumer Godden’s The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is one of the few novels with a surprise ending that  feels right.

Away at boarding school, the Clavering children know nothing of their parents’ divorce until it’s settled. By then, their mother has gone to Italy with her lover.

Hugh and Carrie, devastated by their mother’s desertion, set out to bring her home from the Lake Garda villa where she and Rob are honeymooning while waiting to marry.

Glad as she is to see the children, Fanny is not about to go back to London.

Rob, who isn’t glad to see the children, summons his  own daughter to join them at the villa.

The only thing the three children have in common is dislike of the “other parent.”

As the children fight to restore their normal families, Rob and Fanny fight over how much parents owe to their children. Should the children always come first?

The point of view shifts frequently in the early chapters, reflecting the distress of the characters. As they become more sure of themselves, Godden steadies her perspective and picks up the pace. The story is streaking along when it slams to a close.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita is a fight you won’t soon forget.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita
By Rumer Godden
Viking Press, 1963
312 pages
1963 bestseller #10
© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Just Live by Faith That Innocence Wins Out

In his earlier bestseller The Prodigal Judge, Vaughan Kester showed his talent for bringing out the best in flawed characters. In The Just and the Unjust he has several flawed characters with which he explores how people are judged by the choices they make.

Young Jack North has blown through close to $20,000 by keeping too much company with Andy Gilmore, whose rooms are the local gambling parlor. Jack has also come close to getting sexually involved with his friend Marshall Langham’s wife.

Jack determines to leave Mount Hope and start over,  hoping to redeem himself enough to one day win Elizabeth Herbert. He gets only as far as Chicago when the local sheriff invites him to return to answer some questions.

murder victim is discovered.
Murdered!

Within three months, Jack is in jail on a murder charge.

Jack is both innocent and naif. He thinks because he’s innocent, it’s impossible for him to be convicted.

With the notable exception of the prosecuting attorney, who people appear to dislike on general principles, the best of Kester’s characters have their flaws, the worst their good points. Readers will have no doubt whom they should cheer for, but they’ll feel bad for the also-rans.

Unlike Jack and the police, readers know who committed the murder and why. They are privy to the secrets of those who could have proven Jack’s innocence and didn’t. They see the real villian of the novel get away scot free. In spite of all their insider knowledge, readers are kept on the edge of their chairs to the last page by the possibility that Jack might hang for a crime he didn’t commit.

The Just and the Unjust
by Vaughan Kester
Illustrated by M. Leone Bracker
1912 bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg E-book #14581
©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Helen Has Little Romance, Lots of Gab in Old House

Helen Ward is young, unmarried, and at loose ends. The end of World War I left her with no meaningful occupation because,  as the daughter of a millhand who became rich from his patent on a process that revolutionized the mill operation, she can’t work for money.

Helen’s brother, John, runs the mill with too much respect for workers to suit his deranged father or Helen. She’s both pleased and miffed by her childhood sweetheart, John’s best friend, “knows his place” and makes no social overatures.

Adam Ward hopes his daughter will marry Jim McIver, another mill owner, and show John how workers ought to be treated.

As readers of romances know, Harold Bell Wright won’t let that  marriage happen.

However, this set-up for romantic froth about whether Helen will find happiness is overshadowed by more exciting questions:

Can communist Jake Vodell incite a strike at the mill?

If the mill workers stage a sympathy strike, will Adam Ward blow up his mill as he’s threatened?

Why does Adam have such contempt for his one-time friend Pete Martin?

The central character of  Helen of the Old House turns out to be The Interpreter, a larger-than-life character who  lost the use of his legs in a mill accident and now supports himself by making baskets.

The Interpreter’s dispassionate advice is as much sought now as his translation skills had been when he worked in the mill. Although confined to a wheel chair, The Interpreter doesn’t miss much that goes on. Sooner or later, all the characters end up at the Interpreter’s hut.

Wright lades the novel with inspirational speeches about the dignity of work and the brotherhood of men that sound like the script for a Pathe news reel.  The story is saved from death by sugar overdose by a couple disreputable characters of such nastiness they’ll leave you gasping for breath.

Helen of the Old House
Harold Bell Wright
Published 1921
1922 Bestseller # 10
Project Gutenberg ebook #9410
 
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni