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Archive for the ‘War’ Category

A memoir of 1898-1915 written by a “member of the governing classes” who spent those years at a British public school and at Oxford doesn’t sound particularly interesting.

And it wouldn’t be, except for what George Oakleigh records happened between August 1914 and August 1915.

Title Sonia: Between Two Worlds superimposed on map of pre-World War I Europe


Sonia: Between Two Worlds by Stephen McKenna

George H. Doran, 1917. 475 pages. 1918 bestseller #10. My grade: B.


The Prague-born son of an Irish lord who, after his pro-Greek father was murdered by Turks, worked his way back to England, David O’Rane pays all his money to buy one term’s tuition at Merton.

David quickly wins admirers and friends including George, the reliable guy everyone trusts; Jim Loring; Tom Dainton, and Tom’s younger sister, Sonia.

Sonia enters into a secret engagement with David until she decides he isn’t rich enough for her.

Sonia later becomes engaged to Jim Loring, whom she also dumps.

Sonia is motoring on the continent in August, 2014, when war is declared.

David borrows an American identity, gets Sonia out of danger, and escorts her home.

Then he enlists.

Stephen McKenna makes the David-Sonia story end well, but little else does.

McKenna’s descriptions of Melton, Oxford, and party politics are only for the initiated.

His descriptions of the feeling of the possibility and then the certainty of wa­r are for everyone.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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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

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It was fitting that I read The Amazing Interlude  on July 4, because the plot of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel grows out of a young girl’s developing sense of what being an American means.


The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Illustrations by the Kinneys. 1918 bestseller #3.
Project Gutenberg ebook #1590. My grade: A-.


Sara Lee Kennedy, 19, is planning to marry a man “as slow as he was sure, as unimaginative as he was faithful,” when a letter telling of the appalling conditions of the Belgian Army touches her imagination.

Sara offers to go to France before marrying Harvey if the Methodist women donate money for her to run a soup kitchen.

Though she knows no French, has no credentials, and has no contacts to help her, Sara gets to Europe and sets up a soup kitchen in a roofless house in Dunkirk, a few hundred yards from the front.

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Her finacé regards her decision as treacherous. While Sara makes soup and cleans wounds, Harvey fumes at home.

Finally Harvey explodes.

He accuses the Methodist ladies of being publicity hounds just as Sara’s letter arrives asking them for more funds for the kitchen.

She’s recalled to America.

When Harvey refuses even to listen to Sara’s stories of what she saw in France, Sara breaks the engagement.

She saw him for what he was, not deliberately cruel, not even unkindly, but selfish, small, without vision. Harvey was for his own fireside, his office, his little family group. His labor would always be for himself and his own. Whereas Sara Lee was, now and forever, for all the world, her hands consecrated to bind up its little wounds and to soothe its great ones. Harvey craved a cheap and easy peace. She wanted no peace except that bought by service, the peace of a tired body, the peace of the little house in Belgium where, after days of torture, weary men found quiet and ease and the cheer of the open door.

Rinehart lets Sara find love, but the romance is secondary to Sara’s finding herself.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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As The Hounds of Spring opens, Cynthia Renner tells her Austrian-born husband she’s “not perfectly satisfied” with their children.

She fears they haven’t had enough disappointments to build character.


The Hounds of Spring by Sylvia Thompson

Little, Brown, 1926. 366 p. 1926 bestseller #4. My grade: A.


1926-04_houndsWithin hours, Austria declares war on Serbia. Within days England is sucked into the conflict.

Colin Russell, the elder Renner daughter’s fiancé, enlists. Two months later, he’s on the front lines in France.

Colin and Zina plan to marry when he gets his first leave. Before then, Colin is declared missing, believed dead.

John Renner, his mother’s favorite child, joins the R.N.A.S. He is shot down over France.

Deadened by her loss and feeling her mother cared for more John than for her, in 1918 Zina marries a man she doesn’t love rather than face the future alone.

While Zina is on her honeymoon, her father intercepts a telegraph message for her: Colin is alive.

Sir Edgar goes to Paris immediately.

When he learns that Zina didn’t wait for his return, Colin says, “So this is war.”

Sylvia Thompson’s quietly stunning novel about an English family whose lives were soaked by the social and political sea changes of 1914-1924 deserves to be rediscovered and reread by a new generation.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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After I finished The Secret of Santa Vittoria, I couldn’t help thinking that I must have seen the film version and not remembered it.

Robert Crichton’s novel, however, is not soon forgotten.


The Secret of Santa Vittoria by Robert Crichton

Simon and Schuster, 1966, 447 pp. 1966 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.


1966-03_santavittoria_200With Mussolini’s death, the remote mountain town of Santa Vittoria expects to be plundered by the German army before being liberated by the Allies.

Santa Vittoria has only one asset: its wine.

Bombolini, the clownish wine merchant and student of Machiavelli, steps up to save the day.

Bombolini becomes Mayor by giving away free wine.

But his real genius is in organizing the entire town to hide a million bottles of wine within an arm’s length of the Germans.

Determined to prove he and his seven German soldiers can subdue an entire town without bloodshed, Captain von Prum swallows Bombolini’s bait every time.

Though a thousand people know the secret, no one tells, not even under torture by the SS.

The result is a story that swings like a bloody pendulum from farce to horror.

The funny parts are almost vaudevillian.

The horrifying parts are nauseating.

And all of The Secret of Santa Vittoria is so ridiculously, stupidly human that the novel seems perfectly plausible.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Ambassador is the second and the best of the 1965 bestsellers about America’s war in Vietnam.

Unlike Robin Moore, who focuses on soldiers, Morris L. West focuses on the policymakers who set in motion events that ended in body bags.

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The Ambassador by Morris L. West

William Morrow, 1965. 275 pages . 1965 bestseller #9. My grade: A.


Ambassador Maxwell Amberley is transferred from Japan to Saigon to deal with the uncooperative South Vietnamese president who would prefer Americans gave him money and let his government fight the Viet Cong.

America is ready—eager, even—for Cung’s generals to overthrow him.

Amberley finds he likes Cung, admires the man’s managerial skills, and envies his moral compass.

But Amberley must represent his government, which is committed to military action and short-term solutions.

Through his fictional account, West is able to show a complex maze of political interests that cannot merge even when they intersect, because their cultural mindsets are diametrically opposed.

West avoids facile characterization. His men and women are complicated people, facing difficult decisions.

Ultimately, American policy in Viet Nam fails because individuals fail to make a morality a habit.

Ambassador Amberley says the words that unleash a coup, make the U.S. party to an assassination, and assures that the war will drag on for many more years.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Robin Moore started out to write a nonfiction account of the undercover work of the Green Berets.

When it became clear the special missions in which they engaged in Vietnam were too sensitive to be reported, even in disguise, Moore decided to present the book as fiction. Even then, its publication met with negative reaction from the US Army.


The Green Berets by Robin Moore

Crown Publishers, 1965. 348 pages. 1965 bestseller #5. My grade: C-


From dust jacket cover for The Green Berets by Robin MooreCalling The Green Berets a novel is also a work of fiction.

It’s a collection of stories—the publisher calls them “brilliant, inspiring tales”— Moore collected and imaginatively expanded based on his experiences with Special Forces in Vietnam.

Moore assumes readers will know the historical background  and geography and need only modest two-page glossary of acronyms to make sense of events that involve characters named Hin and Hon, Ming and Mong, who fight for or against CIDG, ARVN, LLDB, USOM or STRAC.

I suspect the only readers today who have that kind of knowledge are Vietnam-era veterans.

Moore concludes the book by saying that regardless of the outcome of the Vietnam war, Special Forces will continue to “make friends for America” in underdeveloped nations.

Given the stories Moore tells, however, I suspect Special Forces will need to deploy a lot more chocolate bars to accomplish that.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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