Alaska is a Michener novel

Alaska’s physical features and main modes of travel are suggested in the image on the novel’s dust jacket
Geography guides Alaska’s history

Alaska is a novel to please, but not surprise, James A. Michener fans except for one astonishing fact: All the astonishing-beyond-belief stories in the novel are true.

In another novel, fictional characters like Jeb Keeler and Poley Markham, American lawyers who come to Alaska to make their fortunes by means more legal than moral, would be anomalies.

Against the background of Alaska’s real history, the two are almost dull.

Michener begins his tale with Alaska’s prehistoric origins. He focuses, however, on three historic periods: the 18th century when men in sailing ships explored the Pacific coasts, the 19th century when Russia sold Alaska to the United States, which administered it with ineptitude that beggars belief, and the 20th century when World War II revealed to the American government the importance of Alaska to its national survival.

Michener uses his fictional characters primarily to show how “ordinary Alaskans” (the term itself describes fictional characters) lived at various places at various times.

If you want to read Alaska, find a copy that doesn’t come from a library that glues protective plastic dust jacket shields to the inside covers of books:  To follow Michener’s story, you need Jean Paul Tremblay’s maps inside the book’s covers.

map inside front cover of "Alaska"
Jean Paul Tremblay’s maps are essential to understanding the novel
Alaska by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1988. 868 p.
1988 bestseller #5; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Tontine tests readers’ endurance

Always prolix, Thomas B. Costain outdoes himself in The Tontine.

It is a dreary novel on an epic scale.


The Tontine  by Thomas B. Costain

Doubleday ©1955.  2 v. Illus Herbert Ryman. 1955 bestseller #9. My grade: C-.


London businessman Samuel Carboy smells a scam in the 1815 Waterlook Tontine. He intervenes to save investors’ money—and milk the scheme in a more civilized manner. Dust jacket of The Tontine shows four characters in 19th century dress against backdrop of an hourglass.

Carboy, his partner, and Carboy’s carriage driver each buy shares in the tontine for their children.

The story follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the three families as they mess about on every continent until the tontine survivors dwindle to three: Isabelle Carboy, Julian Grace, and Helen Groody.

Interest in the tontine reaches fever pitch.

So much money is bet on the outcome that the British government fears attempt on the lives of the remaining trio.

Costain has so many plots and sub-plots, he can’t remember them all.

Sam Carboy’s milking of the tontine disappears without a trace.

Carboy’s son conveniently dies in America.

His grandson bankrupts his company—” hard times” is the reason Costain gives—and goes off to Africa to be heard of no more.

Julian Grace’s son disappears, too.

Too bad more characters didn’t disappear before they appeared in print: The Tontine is an awful novel.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Inheritance a Study in Chips from Old Blocks

Loom in New Lanark Mill
Phyllis Bentley’s Inheritance follows two intertwined Yorkshire families, the Oldroyds and the Bamforths, for almost 120 years.

The story begins in 1812. William Oldroyd decides to mechanize his woolen mill, a move that will put many workers out of jobs. Joe Bamforth, a foreman whose job is secure, joins his fellow mill hands, taking the Luddite oath. A quartet of Luddites murder the elder Oldroyd. Although Joe is guiltless, he chooses to be hanged with his mates.

Young Will takes over the business, spurning Mary Oldroyd whom he loves and who, unknown to Will, carries his child. Much later, as a widower, Will takes Mary as his second wife and acknowledges his son Jonathan, to the distress of the children of both wives.

In the decades through World War I, the Oldroyd’s financial fortunes rise and the Bamforth’s decline.

The Oldroyds are respected for financial savvy, the Bamforths for their moral standards.

The Oldroyds scramble to stay on top; the Bamforths reach a hand to help others rise.

Bentley is superb at showing ordinary people caught up in historic events. Readers can learn a great deal about the contemporary economic situation from this novels. The Luddites, rather than being old-fashioned fuddy-duddies, seem very much like contemporary workers sucked into the Occupy movement.

Bentley’s characters, however, are bundles of character traits rather than true individuals. The children in the book, in particular, appear to replicas of their dominant parent from the moment of birth. At the last, Bentley’s novel sinks beneath the implausibility of a preteen jumping from a train to change the world.

Inheritance
Phyllis Bentley
MacMillan, 1931
1932 Bestseller #9
592 pages

Photo credit: Loom in  in New Lanark Mill, Scotland uploaded by hazelharp http://www.sxc.hu/photo/207250

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Only Returning Vets Could Love Lydia Bailey

Lydia Bailey burst onto the post-war literary scene, securing author Kenneth Roberts a niche in popular historical fiction for years. Today the novel serves only as a glimpse into the background of events that occasionally erupt onto the evening news.

In 1800, lawyer Albion Hamlin reluctantly leaves his New England farm to represent clients fighting government regulation and red tape.

Hamblin’s work takes him to Haiti, where he meets and marries the lovely Lydia Bailey. Caught in the hostilities surrounding the French re-invasion of the island, the couple escape and sail for Europe.

In the Mediterranean, they are captured by forces of the Baashaw of Tripoli, who has declared war on America. The couple saves their skins, but their lives are never the same afterward.

Hamlin says the things most soldiers just home from the front lines would like to say. I suspect his bitterness made Lydia Bailey a success among folks who had just come through World War II.

Today’s returning vets may have the same gripes, but they wouldn’t go for Roberts’ writing. All Roberts’ meticulous research can’t hide the implausible plot. And his flat, one-dimensional characters and paragraph-length sentences would sink the novel.

Lydia Bailey
By Kenneth Roberts
Doubleday, 1947
488 pages
#4 bestseller in 1947
My Grade: C
© 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