Too many stories in Below the Salt

Below the Salt is a story within a story within a story—which is two stories too many even for an accomplished historical yarn-spinner like Thomas B. Costain.

The outside story is about a would-be novelist, John Foraday. Senator Richard O’Rawn, a man who jilted John’s grandmother years before, takes John on a jaunt to Ireland and England. John falls for the last of the O’Rawn family, a descendant of the Plantagenet kings. John also ghostwrites the Senator’s tale about an earlier Richard O’Rawn who was involved in the events that resulted in King John signing the Magna Charta and limiting his own powers.

Within that story is another story about an earlier Charta signed an earlier king and hidden by the O’Rawns for safekeeping.

Below the Salt gives a fascinating glimpse of medieval history, but as a novel, it’s a dud. Except for the historical figures, none of the novel’s characters is plausible.

The Senator says he wants his story to be a warning to modern Americans, but it’s never clear what the warning is.

As for the idea that the Senator is the reincarnation of a 12th century squire, well, even the Senator gives up on that before the book ends.

Below the Salt
By Thomas B. Costain
Doubleday, 1957
480 pages
#9 bestseller of 1957
My grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Scapegoat suspenseful tale of exchanged identities

Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat is a novel of suspense in the romantic tradition that the Dame’s mid-2oth century readers expected. There’s the requisite isolated setting, suspicious deaths, and a confusion of locals who know more than they are willing to tell.

The story begins when a depressed London professor of French history bumps into a Frenchman in Le Mans who could be his twin. The Frenchman slips his look-alike a sedative and takes off with the Londoner’s possessions, abandoning his own personal effects and his identity as Compte de Gue.

For reasons unknown even to himself, the professor takes up the role of the Count. As John takes responsibiity for the ne’er-do-well count’s family and business, he finds temporary relief from his own misery and isolation. Before long, however, the charade comes to and end, and the hero comes to himself.

Du Maurier is a clever writer, if not a brilliant one. Readers who can accept the implausible premise of the plot will find the novel keeps them interested to the end, despite its wooden characters and preposterous action.

All told, The Scapegoat is a good novel for a rainy night when there’s nothing good on TV.

The Scapegoat
By Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, 1957
348 pages
#7 on the 1957 bestseller list
My grade: C-
copyright 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Blue Camellia makes impossible seem plausible

Blue Camellia is a typical Frances Parkinson Keyes novel of the post-Civil War South.

Well-plotted, founded on historical fact and peopled by believable characters, it neither ignores nor dwells on the seamier side of life.

In 1886, Brent and Mary Winslow and their daughter, Lavinia, sell their Illinois farm and head for Crowley, Louisiana, where enterprising developers plan a county seat on the prairie.

The town is a depressing few frame buildings in a mud sea when Winslows arrive. Brent buys farmland outside town, promising Mary that their fortunes will turn. Together, they will achieve the impossible. They’ll have a “blue camellia.” 

Ignoring snakes, Mary dons rubber boots and works in the rice fields with Brett. Hard work and shrewd investing makes the Winslows wealthy. Meanwhile, Lavinia has had her heart broken by the black sheep of the nearest Cajun neighbors’ family.

For a while, Lavinia’s problems absorb everyone except her father: He’s absorbed in trying to create a better strain of rice. Eventually even Brett realizes something has to be done about Lavinia. Somehow, she has to achieve her own blue camellia. 

Although there’s no long-term value to this novel, Blue Camellia will keep you entertained.

Sometimes that’s enough.

Blue Camellia
By Frances Parkinson Keyes
Julian Messner, 1957
430 pages
#5 bestseller of 1957
My grade: B-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni