Showboat, the novel, lacks liveliness of musical

A riverboat owner facing competition from the railroad in the waning years of the 19th century buys a successful touring company, the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theater.

To secure the company of his adored daughter, Magnolia, Capt. Andy Hawkes convinces his wife, Parthenia, to sail with the company.


Showboat by Edna Ferber

Doubleday, Page. 1926. 398 p. My grade: C.


Showboat first edition cover shows crowd going up gangplank to see the showThe child loves the life and riverboat people and is loved in return.

In her teens, Maggie becomes a part of the acting company, much to the distress of her rigid, narrow-minded mother.

Maggie marries a charming riverboat gambler who had joined the company during one of his losing streaks.

After several feast-or-famine years, Gaylord deserts Maggie and their daughter in Chicago, just as Maggie’s mother had predicted.

To support herself, Maggie returns to the stage to put Kim through convent school.

Meanwhile, Parthenia has taken over operation of the showboat after Capt. Andy drowned in an accident.

When Parthenia dies, Maggie returns to the showboat.

It’s easy to see why Showboat was turned into a Broadway musical: Edna Ferber’s novel reads like notes for a play.

All the elements of a drama are present in the novel—strongly drawn characters, conflict, pathos, romance—but there’s no life in the thing.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Benton’s Row Is Uneven and Unoriginal

If I were asked whether Frank Yerby’s Benton’s Row is

a) a typical Yerby novel
b) better than the typical Yerby novel
c) worse than the typical Yerby novel
d) all of the above

I’d choose D.

Benton’s Row is in three parts. The first is standard Yerby: Tom Benton, an ambitious poor boy, irresistible to women, achieves fame and fortune in America’s South before the Civil War.

Part two, set during during Reconstruction, focuses on Tom’s widow, Sarah, remarried to the local doctor, and the extended family of Tom Benton’s legitimate and bastard children.

Yerby, who usually uses paper dolls for his female characters, does a surprisingly good job portraying Sarah.

In this middle section, Yerby also surprises with his depiction of plantations of the interior South as an unpainted log homes and the planters as not substantially better off financially than their slaves.

Unfortunately, Yerby destroys the impact of his original elements by ending the middle section with an incident distressingly similar to a scene from Zane Grey’s  To the Last Man.

The third part of Benton’s Row is a hodgepodge of stories about Tom Benton’s progeny and grandchildren during and after World War I. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who — and even harder to care.

Benton’s Row
by Frank Yerby
Dial Press, 1954
280 pages
1954 bestseller #10
My grade: C-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Never Victorious, Never Defeated Is Vintage Taylor Caldwell

cover of Never Victorious, Never Defeated (1954)Never Victorious, Never Defeated is a typical Taylor Caldwell novel: a good yarn with vivid characters against a backdrop of political and spiritual decay.

The setting is Pennsylvania during the years when America, aided by immigrants fleeing certain starvation in Europe for the mirage of banqueting in America, changed from an agricultural to an industrial nation.

Greedy men are vying for wealth: They must have markets for their goods.

Cornelia Marshall, granddaughter of a railroad entrepreneur Aaron deWitt, uses her brain and cunning to achieve power and wealth.

Like her father before her and greedy men around her, Cornelia is amoral, willing to use or destroy anyone who stands in her way, including her siblings, her husband, her children.

A few patriots and saints — including Cornelia’s brother-in-law and son — see the destructive force at work in the world and attempt to counter it.

They see American society being undermined by the rise of cities, the cultivation of war as a business tool, the growth of central government, the disappearance of moral teaching.

Nevertheless, they believe eventually men of good will and common sense will defeat evil at the ballot box.

Whether their optimism is valid remains to be seen.

Read Never Victorious, Never Defeated and draw your own conclusions.

Never Victorious, Never Defeated
by Taylor Caldwell
Mc-Graw Hill, 1954
549 pages
#9 on the 1954 bestseller list
My grade: B

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Hungry Hill doesn’t dig deep enough

Abandoned mine shaft on Cornall coast
Abandoned mine shaft

Hungry Hill is a novel book jackets refer to as a “sweeping saga.”

It’s what I call a stupendous bore.

In 1820, John Brodrick opens a copper mine at Hungry Hill near Doonhaven.  A  local man resentful of English takeover of Irish land, predicts the Brodericks and their estate will come to ruin. Daphne du Maurier spends the rest of the book showing the prediction come true.

Each succeeding generation of Brodericks  is more foolish than the last.  By 1920, there’s nothing left but chimney stacks and regrets.

Du Maurier fails to do more than just sketch characters and settings. The Dame tells us what we’re supposed to see, but it’s like looking for pictures in clouds. The facts are so flimsy, we can see any projection we wish.

The story line is equally superficial. We’ve seen all these plots before: The loving wife dying in childbirth, the mine-owner falling down his own mine shaft. The whole novel gives the impression of paper dolls manipulated by a child mouthing lines from her storybooks.

When John Henry realizes that he, like all the Brodricks, cares for nothing but his own comfort, it’s too late to do any good for the family or for du Maurier’s poor readers.

Hungry Hill
By Daphne du Mauier
Doubleday, Doran  1943
402 pages
1943 bestseller # 8
My grade: C-

Photo credit: Cornish tin mine by dubock

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Crisis founders in crinolines and clichés

Winston Churchill sets The Crisis amid the crinolines and cavalry officers of nineteenth century St. Louis.

Stephen Bliss and his mother are Bostonian aristocrats who lost their fortunes. They move to St. Louis where Stephen is to study law with the eccentric Judge Whipple, a friend of his father.

Stephen is barely off the boat when on impulse he buys a slave to free and return to her mother. The deed charms the judge, a vehement abolitionist, and infuriates Virginia Carvel, who had hoped to acquire the girl as her servant.

Since Virginia’s father and Judge Whipple are best friends, Colonel Carvel soon meets Stephen., whom he likes.

Another New Englander, Eliphalet Hopper,  is already working in the Carvel’s business where his thrift, shrewdness, and lack of scruples bode ill for his employer.

The tale is the usual romantic nonsense about a Southern belle captivated against her will by a horrible Yankee who turns out not to be horrible.

Churchill brings some historical figures into the story, but his focus is the cliché-ridden love story.  It’s a shame, really.  The book is chock-full of minor characters who deserve to star in novels of their own.

The Crisis
by Winston Churchill
Illus. Howard Chandler Christy
MacMillan, 1901
522 pages
Project Gutenberg e-book #5396
My grade: C
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Scarlet Sister Mary: Memorable Black Single Mom

In Scarlet Sister Mary, Julia Peterkin writes a deceptively shallow story of the post-Civil War South that focuses on a black woman.

Mary is a pretty, spirited teenager raised by Maum Hannah, a pillar of the Quarters church that calls the teen  “Sister Mary.”

Pregnant, Mary weds July, who promptly deserts her. The church that would have rallied around a deserted wife has little sympathy for a girl who had premarital sex, a scarlet sin.

Mary  keeps the roof patched and food on the table by field work. July’s twin brother, June, long in love with Mary, is close at hand.

Before Mary is much more than 30, she has five children by different fathers and two of her grandchildren to raise as well.

When July comes back, she kicks him out.

Mary is a proud woman. She’s also getting old. What’s she to do with a passel of kids to raise?

Peterkin deftly shows how one woman copes as a single parent. Mary’s choices may not be good ones, but Peterkin makes them appear plausible. Similarly, she makes believable Mary’s easy acceptance of both organized Christianity and black magic.

You may not side with Mary, but when you’ve finished Scarlet Sister Mary, you’ll feel you understand her.

Scarlet Sister Mary
by Julia Peterkin
Bobbs-Merrill. 1928
345 pages
1929 # 9
My grade B+
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Pride’s Castle Is Overvalued Property

Pride’s Castle is the tale of a poor boy determined to be rich and the women who love him.

Pride Dawson and his trusty sidekick, Tim McCarthy, land in New York after the Civil War. Two women fall madly in love with Pride immediately. One is honest but poor Sharon O’Neil. The other is the rich but unscrupulous Esther Stillworth.

Before long, Pride is on his way to being a robber baron on a par with the Goulds and Vanderbuilts.

He marries Esther for her money, but continues seeing Sharon, who eventually becomes his mistress. Both women exist at the back of his life.

Pride’s real passion is making money. He spends it ostentatiously, among other things modeling the décor of his pseudo-medieval castle on the Hudson on that of an upscale New Orleans brothel.

The ups and downs of the American economy and labor movement of the late nineteenth century form the backdrop of the story. Tim and Pride split over Pride’s treatment of workers, and even Esther argues for workers’ legitimate concerns.

Plot is everything in this novel.  Frank Yerby ties up all the lose ends but never shows what makes Sharon tick — and she’s what makes the novel interesting.

Pride’s Castle
By Frank Yerby
Dial Press, 1949
382 pages
1949 bestseller #9
My Grade: C
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

All This, and Heaven Too: 1847 Scandal Makes Sensational Novel

As a child, Rachel Field was curious about her great aunt, Henriette Desportes, whose tombstone told the date of her death but nothing of her life. In All This, and Heaven Too, Field fleshes out the facts she later learned with details she imagined.

After eight years in England, Henriette returns to her native Paris as governess to the children of the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin. The Duc is a handsome, unhappily married man. The Duchesse is a nut case.

When gossip links her name with the Duc’s, Henriette is sacked without a reference. Later the Duchesse is found brutally murdered, the Duc is accused of the murder. He commits suicide. Henriette stands trial. Defending herself, she wins acquittal.

Afterward, Henriette meets and marries a American minister, Henry Field, through whom she comes in contact with the most important figures of Civil War era America.

Field makes Henriette come alive in her warts-and-all imagining of the story. The tale loses steam after trial, so the latter chapters are less exciting than the early section.

By the time readers get to the end of the book, they may have forgotten the lesson of Henriette’s life: pride in one’s virtue can be deadly.

All This, and Heaven Too
By Rachel Field
Macmillan, 1938
594 pages
# 6 on the 1938 bestseller list
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni