A. J. Cronin’s The Green Years is formula fiction with an inspirational ending.
After his parents die, Robert Shannon is taken in by his mother’s family, strangers to him. Some of them are very strange indeed. The family is poor, and “Papa’s” miserly ways make their lives even more miserable than they need to be.
Robert’s desire to be liked makes him an easy target for liars and cheats. He usually ends up poorer, no wiser, and more introverted and depressed than before.
His teacher encourages him to try for a scholarship, but when diphtheria keeps him from the third day of testing, Robert’s scholarship hopes are ruined.
He ends up working as a boilermaker, shunning friends and family who supported his dreams. They remain faithful to him, however, and provide the book with a happy ending.
Cronin’s characters are nothing more than two-dimensional sketches. Robert grows older, but doesn’t seem to grow up. He shows every sign of developing into self-centered, depressed adult.
The Green Years is one more nail in the coffin of the the poor-but-brilliant orphan storyline.
Let’s bury it once and for all.
The Green Years
By A. J. Cronin
Little, Brown, 1944
1944 bestseller #6
My grade: C +
Reading novels reminds us that there are all kinds of mothers, some of whom would never inspire a Hallmark card.
In honor of Mother’s Day, here are capsule summaries of five novels whose main character is a mother. Some of the novels will make you wish its leading lady had been your mother. Others will make you immensely grateful for the mother you had.
Three Loves, A. J. Cronin’s 1932 bestseller, is a novel about a woman who views herself as selflessly devoted to her family. The family views her as selfishly controlling. What happens when the devoted wife and mother realizes her devotion is rejected makes for riveting reading.
The Iron Woman by Margaret Deland is novel for puzzle lovers. The novel follows four children as they attempt to carry out, against the wishes of their two mothers, marital plans made one summer afternoon under an apple tree. One of the mothers is the formidable owner of Maitlin Iron Works. The other is an equally formidable genteel widow. As to which is the better mother, there’s no contest. Readers must decide which of the two is the stronger.
The Family by Nina Fedorova (1940) is the story of a Russian emigrant family living in China in 1937. When the Japanese invade China, the mother has to decides to send the children off to what she can only hope will be a better life. Then she picks up the pieces of her life, and builds a new family in Tientsin.
Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers Barnes was not only a bestseller two years in a row, but garnered the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Its leading lady, Jane Ward, leads an unremarkable life. Always comfortably well-off, she makes a happy marriage and has three children. In the 1920s when her children are grown and have children of their own, Jane reflects on her life and wonders if she made the right choices.
The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden takes a ‘sixties look at a mother whose life is not all that different from Jane Ward’s, but who makes different choices.
Cronin and Hilton were prolific writers who knew how to write novels that translated well into films. Hilton even worked as a Hollywood screenwriter. Their names were, if not household words, instantly recognizable to the reading public on both sides of the Atlantic for a large portion of the twentieth century.
In their 1953 bestsellers, Cronin and Hilton tell stories of men remarkable for their ordinariness. Cronin’s protagonist is career foreign service officer nearing retirement age; Hilton’s is a young collegian planning a teaching career.
Each of these unlikely heroes would laugh at the idea of doing anything heroic. They go on playing the bit role life assigned them until they each tumble into a situation they cannot in good conscience ignore.
Beyond This Place is one of A. J. Cronin’s most intriguing novels, and one in a genre not typical for him: It’s a mystery.
When 21-year-old Paul Burgess needs his birth certificate to get a teaching job, his mother has to tell him he’s really Paul Mathry. His father, Rees Mathry, is serving a life sentence for murder.
Paul learns his father was sentenced to hang, but the sentence was commuted. Paul finds that suspicious.
Further investigation turn up other information oddly omitted from the police inquiry: a bag left at the murder scene was made of human skin, and one witness believed the man who fled the scene had escaped on a green bicycle.
Paul’s investigation makes some very influential people very uncomfortable.
Some of the dialog is stilted, but the strong story pulls readers over those rocky patches. Even as Paul makes progress, the outcome is never assured.
Paul himself might fail under pressure.
His father might die in prison.
Key witnesses might be bought off.
Paul is a decent, persistent plodder. His very ordinariness is part of the attraction of this novel. When Paul’s successes create more difficulties for him, readers will feel he’s one of them
Beyond This Place
by A. J. Cronin
Little, Brown, 1953
1953 bestseller # 7
My grade: B
None of the novels on the 1932 bestseller list are great books. Three of them, however, are insightful character studies that are well worth reading today.
First place in my list is the 10th place novel on the list: Three Loves by A. J. Cronin. Cronin tells the story of a passionate woman who devotes herself first to her husband, then to her son, and then to God, only to find none of them is willing to do what she wants them to do. Three Loves, in my opinion, is Cronin’s best novel, far better than the medical-religious tales for which he is best known.
My second place honors are shared by two novels shaped in very different ways by the French battlefields of World War I.
Magnolia Street by Louis Golding looks at the relationship—or more precisely the lack of relationship—between Jews and gentiles on a single English city block. As a novel, Magnolia Street is disjointed and repetitious; as a living microcosom, it’s heartbreaking.
Old Wine and New by Warwick Deeping tells the story of returning vet who finds himself old, redundant, and unworthy of notice by the bright young things who weren’t over there. Solid story telling and characters who do whatever’s necessary to get up after life’s hard knocks make this novel good reading.
If you expect A. J. Cronin’s Three Loves to be one of his typical heartwarming tales of a dedicated doctor, you are in for a shock.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Lucy Murray married Frank Moore, an easy-going commercial traveler, whom she loves as much for what she thinks she can mold him into as for what he is. She’s willing to do anything for Frank except let Frank decide what he wants done.
Frank’s death in a boating accident for which Lucy was really responsible leaves her to raise their son, Peter, alone. She’s willing to accept any hardship to see that Peter becomes a doctor.
Lucy wrangles her way into Frank’s old job, and does it better than he. When the firm is sold, she is forced to take the only job available: collecting rent in the slums.
Peter gets his degree, but marries a rich girl whose father made his fortune renting the slum dwellings where Lucy collected rents. Lucy’s fortunes sink lower.
She wanders into a church where she falls in love with Jesus and decides to enter holy orders. Instead of the ecstatic spiritual union she seeks, she finds debilitating emotional and physical deprivation.
Lucy’s personality mingles resourcefulness, perseverance, and loyalty with a selfish passion for control, which she calls love. Having established her essential characteristics, Cronin turns her loose and watches what happens.
The novel is uneven. It would be stronger without plot elements Cronin introduces only to drop them again. But despite its flaws, Three Loves is a compelling portrait that readers won’t soon forget.
A. J. Cronin
Little, Brown, 1932
Pyramid Books, 1960
1932 Bestseller #10
A. J. Cronin’s novel The Keys of The Kingdom headed the bestseller list in 1941. It was still on the list in 1942, although it had dropped to tenth place.
The novel remains good entertainment today. It is an intriguing character study of someone who finds that fitting is definitely overrated. Keys’ lead character, Francis Chisholm, the missionary priest to China’s “rice Christians,” could probably have answered “yes” to each of Leonard Felder’s 15 self-analysis questions to determine if one is an “insightful outsider.”
A full review of the novel is included with the 1941 bestsellers.
A. J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom is the story of a man who never fit in.
The suicide of the woman he loves drives Francis Chisholm into the priesthood. He’s more interested in practical faith than in proclamations of piety. Francis ticks off one priest by organizing a community center. He offends another by discovering a miracle was a girl’s overactive imagination.
The church sends Francis off to China. His “flourishing missionary compound” turns out to be a shambles, his parishioners “rice Christians.”
Refusing to buy converts, Francis opens a free medical clinic, takes in orphan girls, and establishes a school. He also establishes a relationship with a Catholic community in a remote mountain village and a friendship with a Methodist missionary couple.
Mostly, however, Francis wins respect rather than friends. The church retires him to Scotland, leaving his mission to priests with better PR sense.
Readers would probably not care for Francis in the flesh, but in the novel he’s a sympathetic character, both noble and flawed. And Cronin’s China scenes are reminiscent of Pearl S. Buck.
Though hardly great literature, The Keys of the Kingdom is a good read with a spiritually uplifting tone that’s free of any offensive doctrinal foundation.
The Keys of the Kingdom
By A. J. Cronin
1941 bestseller #1
Shannon’s Way is A. J. Cronin’s sequel to The Green Years. Robert Shannon, now an M.D., is working in a research lab, bitterly doing grunt work.
Robert gets kicked out of the lab for doing his own research instead of his assigned duties. He finds comfort and encouragement in Jean Law, an attractive medical student headed for the mission field, but religious differences separate them.
From there, it’s downhill.
Robert loses post after post because he can’t get along with his co-workers. All the while, he keeps at his research.
Eventually, beaten to publication by another researcher, Robert has a breakdown. Jean reappears bearing an offer of a research appointment abroad and declaring her love.
This plot is absurd.
The reason Robert wasn’t first was to publish his discovery was that he took time to develop a vaccine against the organism — something the first researcher didn’t do. Robert could still have published, made a bundle, and been able to afford to eat.
Trying to pass Robert Shannon off as a hero is nuts. He may be a brilliant medical researcher, but he has the emotional intelligence of a newt. Why anybody can stand the guy is beyond me.
She’s in for a miserable life.
By A. J. Cronin
Little, Brown, 1948
Bestseller # 8 for 1948
My Grade: C-
The Citadelis a moderately entertaining tale about an idealistic young doctor who almost wrecks his life trying to get rich quick.
Andrew Manson starts his medical practice in a Welch coal-mining village. He quickly realizes his medical training was both inadequate and often blatantly wrong. He also falls in love and weds the village teacher.
Andrew finds medicine has more quacks than skilled professionals. He sees the quacks making money and tries their tactics with great success until one of those quacks botches a simple surgery and lets Andrew’s patient die.
Trained as a doctor, author A. J. Cronin spins his tale with the sureness of someone who knows the field. That knowledge helps conceal the weak plot, though it can’t do anything about Cronin’s ham-fisted foreshadowing.
Also, Cronin is less than adept at developing characters. Cronin tells instead of showing what makes his people tick. It’s not clear, for example, what triggers dramatic Andrew’s plunge into pursuit of wealth.
The Citadel comes off as cliché-ridden and saccharine, but things could be worse. About 20 years later, Morton Thompson will a very similar story, add an ample dose of sex, and turn it into a longer, duller book.
The CitadelBy A. J. CroninGrossett & Dunlap, 1938401 pages#3 on the 1937 and #2 on the 1938 bestseller listsMy grade: C-