Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement shook readers who had just come through World War II and considered themselves unprejudiced.
Journalist Phil Green decides to pose as a Jew to get the inside angle on anti-Semitism. Initially, only his mother, his girlfriend, and his editor know his Jewishness is only a pose.
Green becomes increasingly sensitized to prejudice. First he notices disparaging language, and then feels the slights and rejections. But it’s the reaction of those closest to him—his sister, his girlfriend, his son—that hit Green hardest.
Hobson tries to make her characters a mixture of good and bad, but they never quite ring true. Greene displays a naiveté that borders on stupidity. It never occurs to Green, for example, that his 8-year-old son is going to have questions about the charade.
Although anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of prejudice are probably as strong in America today as when Hobson was writing Gentleman’s Agreement, the novel wouldn’t have much impact on contemporary readers. Since 1947, we’ve seen too many stories about someone who goes undercover to get the scoop on being a minority.
The plot that confronted readers in 1947 is a cliché today.
Gentleman’s Agreement has become the victim of its own success.
Laura Z. Hobson
Simon and Schuster, 1947
#3 bestselling novel in 1947
My Grade: C+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni
The Moneyman, Thomas B. Costain’s novel of 15th century French intrigue and counter-intrigue. is a much better novel than the tales of the Christian era for which Costain is famous.
“The Moneyman” is Jacques Coeur, semi-official financier for Charles VII. For years, Coeur manipulated French policy through the king’s mistress, Agnes Sorel. When Agnes becomes ill, Coeur must find a replacement so the king won’t turn to other advisers after Agnes dies.
Coeur finds and trains Valerie, a poor girl who looks like Agnes. When Agnes dies shortly after Coeur and Valerie visit her, the pair is charged with her murder. Coeur’s worst enemies are to be the judges at the trial; Coeur is not allowed to examine witnesses or call witnesses.
Right to the end I couldn’t figure out how Coeur and Valerie were going to get out of their predicament—and it mattered to me that they did.
Oddly enough, neither the plot nor the characters of The Moneyman are unusual. In The Moneyman, however, Costain has woven them so well into the historical account of battles to evict the English from France that the plot and characters seem alive.
Rediscover The Moneyman. It’s still a great read.
By Thomas B. Costain
#2 Bestseller for 1947
My Grade: B+
© 2006 Linda Gorton Aragoni
The Miracle of the Bells is a standard religious novel to which Russell Janney has added a dollop of humor. The humor increases the novel’s appeal but can’t disguise its poor quality.
Press agent William “Spats” Dunnigan had met Olga when she was an innocent waif determined to be a star. He felt sorry for her and made sure she had a job to keep her in groceries. When opportunity arose, he catapulted Olga from stand-in to staring role.
Shortly after the film shoot ended, Olga died from lung damage suffered as a child. While explaining to the town priest that Olga wanted the church bells rung for her funeral, Spats gets an idea. He’ll have all the bells in Coaltown rung for four days before the funeral, turning it into a promotion for the film studio.
Spats not only achieves his publicity objectives, but also turns the town upside down. It’s a miracle! But there’s no reason to think Spats is a better man because of it.
If Russell Janney weren’t so clever with his odd characters and funny lines, the novel would fall flat. For substance, readers will have to look elsewhere. The Miracle of the Bells offers nothing but fun.
The Miracle of the Bells
By Russell Janney
Prentice Hall, 1946
#1 bestseller in 1947
My grade: C+
© 2006 Linda Gorton Aragoni
1947 was a very good year for novels. More than half the novels on America’s top 10 list for the year are still entertaining and thought-provoking reading. In the next few weeks, I’ll post reviews of all 10, starting with the No. 1 bestseller. Check your public library or WorldCat to locate a copy near you.
- The Miracle of the Bells by Russell Janney http://worldcat.org/oclc/307543
- The Moneyman by Thomas B. Costain http://worldcat.org/oclc/9780459
- Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson http://worldcat.org/oclc/9808446
- Lydia Bailey by Kenneth Roberts http://worldcat.org/oclc/7020406
- The Vixens by Frank Yerby (No WorldCat member libraries show this item in their collections.)
- The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck http://worldcat.org/oclc/33060655 There are mutliple editions of this novel, each with its own OCLC number.
- House Divided by Ben Ames Williams http://worldcat.org/oclc/12178006
- Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis http://worldcat.org/oclc/30637705
- East Side, West Side by Marcia Davenport http://worldcat.org/oclc/568038
- Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger http://worldcat.org/oclc/287607
If you’re at all like me, the first place you look for books is your public library.
My local library, Kinney Memorial, has On the Beach in its young adult section. Why a tale of nuclear holocaust is considered young adult reading is beyond me. But then The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Moby Dick are in the young adult section, too.
I got the rest of the 1957 bestsellers through interlibrary loan from the Four County Library System. To search the Four County Web site, click on Find a Book, Tape or CD. When the iBistro page opens, I suggest you choose the power seach option for the quickest results. There you can enter the author’s last name and the title you want to find.
You might want to check WorldCat for these and other bestsellers of yesteryear. Not all libraries post their databases to WorldCat, but many do. If you enter your zip code, WorldCat will list its member libraries holding a particular search item according to their distance from you.
Here are WorldCat links for 1957 bestsellers:
By Love Possessed http://worldcat.org/oclc/282476
Peyton Place http://worldcat.org/oclc/289487
Rally Round the Flag, Boys! http://worldcat.org/oclc/8834704
Blue Camellia http://worldcat.org/oclc/507485
Eloise in Paris http://worldcat.org/oclc/1386938
The Scapegoat http://worldcat.org/oclc/366147
On the Beach http://worldcat.org/oclc/366779
Below the Salt http://worldcat.org/oclc/282495
Atlas Shrugged http://worldcat.org/oclc/287605
I mentioned in an earlier post that Of Love Possessed, the top novel in ’57, was made into a movie. Other top novels of 1957 that got the Hollywood treatment were Peyton Place; Compulsion; Rally Round the Flag, Boys; and On the Beach. (Look at that. All I have to do is think about Of Love Possessed and I break out in semicolons.) You’ll have no difficulty finding any of them in DVD.
Adapted for the big screen 1957, the Peyton Place film version was almost a flop. It was saved by publicity surrounding the murder trial of the daughter of star Lana Turner for the murder of her mother’s mobster boyfriend. The film is available in VHS and DVD formats. The novel also spawned the the first prime time TV soap opera. That’s out on DVD, too.
There are two versions of On the Beach. Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner starred in the first film adapation in 1959. It’s available in VHS and DVD formats. A 2000 remake starring Armand Assante was on TV a week or so ago. It is available on DVD. Amazon.com sells the two versions on DVD as a set, for people who want to be really depressed.
A movie version of Compulsion was released in 1959. (It’s available on DVD.) Nathan Leopold (the character on whom Judd Steiner is based) was offended by the film. From prison, he sued author Levin and the film’s producer Richard Zanuck for invasion of privacy. The case dragged on for years. Leopold finally lost: he was declared a public figure not entitled to privacy protection.
Rally Round the Flag, Boys! is available on DVD. It stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Looking back at the 1957 bestsellers from 60 years later, I rank Compulsion by Meyer Levin and On the Beach by Nevil Shute as the best reading of that year’s top ten.Both these novels are top-notch entertainment on topics that remain timely. Compulsion deals with why smart people commit crimes. On the Beach deals with the consequences of poor political choices.I’d give Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged the next slot on my favorites list. I don’t consider it good entertainment; far from it. The book is too long and Rand tells far more than she shows. But Rand’s political and philosophical views are still worth a read today because her ideas are still in the air.
Nothing else on the 1957 list is more than ho-hum reading.
Peyton Place deserves a mention though. The title has become almost synonymous with illicit sex through the novel is tame by today’s standards.
Want to know a little about how I reach my opinions? Check the “about the reviewer” and “how I grade” pages listed across the top of this page.