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Posts Tagged ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’

In a 1985 introduction to a novel I’m to review here in 2014, John W. Aldridge had this to say about American novels:

Until fairly recently in this country it was possible for novels to be both serious and popular without being in any way cheap, titillating, escapist, or, for that matter, depressing. They could often be of high literary quality and at the same time offer not only entertainment, but something instructive about the nature of  American society—the look and feel of the land, the manners and morals of the people. There was a time, in short, when certain novels written for the general reading audience neither pandered to the worst tastes of that audience nor showed discomfort in speaking intelligently  to it.

Among the bestsellers of yesteryear that I reviewed for Great Penformances in 2013, 10 stand out in my mind as fitting Aldridge’s criteria. Each has something to say about the definition of success and the means of achieving it.

In  Unleavened Bread, Robert Grant paints a vivid portrait of Selma White who believes she deserves to be a success at everything because she is “by instinct, by heritage, and without education”  superior to every one else. Selma and her equally self-deluded third husband prove that whatever success may be, it’s not something to which people are naturally entitled.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim is the lightest of my 10 top picks of the year’s reading. In it, four very different English women, previously strangers, rent a medieval Italian castle together for a month of sunshine and wisteria. In addition to the respite they knew they needed, they find self-knowledge, friendship, and love —  elements of a successful life.

Cover, Wanderer of the Wasteland The Wanderer of the Wasteland by Zane Grey has little in common with The Enchanted April except that in both novels the setting plays a pivotal role.    In The Wanderer, the Death Valley setting is the adversary; success is as simple — and as complicated — as surviving another day.

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada is a story of human endurance in a different setting: Germany after World War I.  In Fallada’s story, a very poor, touchingly young couple try to create a home for themselves and their child in a society crippled by war and the economic sanctions imposed by the victorious allies. As in Zane Grey’s novel, simply surviving another day is a success.

So Little Time by John P. Marquand is a novel about enduring a situation more familiar to most readers than survival in Death Valley or a conquered city.  Middle aged Jeff Wilson realizes he’s not achieved the success he’d hope for as a dramatist and has few years left in which to write Broadway’s greatest hit.   Should he attempt it or admit great drama is beyond his ability? Could he live with himself if he tried and failed? Could he live with himself if he never tried?

James Hilton’s Time and Time Again is another novel about a middle aged man who realizes he’ll never rise to the top of his profession. Having missed the years his son changed from boy to young man in the safety of America during World War II, Charles “Stuffy” Anderson hopes to re-establish a relationship with his son on an adult level. Hilton uses the story of their reunion to explore the meaning of a life well lived.

Betty Smith offers a different perspective achieving success in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In Smith’s novel, a city family living on love and what the mother earns scrubbing floors pushes its children to achieve something better with their lives through the traditional American methods of schooling and hard work.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is gritty and realistic at the same time it’s uplifting and hopeful.

Another novel that merges realism with zest for living is Louis Bromfield’s Mrs. Parkington. Mrs. Parkington is a  feisty widow who finds herself having to bail out her adult children from the situations into which their stupidity and self-centeredness land them. Mrs. Parkington is a model of how to grow old exuberantly, in spite of one’s offspring.

 The Sand Pebbles book jacket by Richard McKennaIn The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Gooden the offspring are definitely in control. When their mother runs off to Italy with her lover, the Clavering children follow to bring her home. They manage to drive a wedge between the couple. Readers can explore the ramifications of the question, “How much do parents owe to their children?” through observing what happens at the Villa Fiorita.

The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna is a novel in which no one has control. The novel follows a Navy seaman with a passion for engines who is serving on an aging gunboat. The boat is patrolling the Yangtze River when China erupts into violence, bringing the Communists to power. The crew and their on-shore friends and acquaintances give McKenna ample opportunity to look at multiple ways of defining success.

There you have the 10 novels I reviewed this year that I’m most likely to go back to reread at least once more — which surely is sign of a successful novel.

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Fathers who try to give their children all the advantages are two-a-penny in fiction. What makes them interesting is that they don’t all use the same strategies. Nor do they all work from the same base of moral and emotional strength.

In Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son, a twentieth-century father spoils his son to destruction just as King David did his beloved son Absolom centuries before.  A subplot shows the opposite approach of training a son to be tough may not lead to a happy outcome either.

Lest you think spoiling sons is just a western habit, Pearl S. Buck  in The Good Earth shows a Chinese peasant spoiling his sons. Just in case you miss the destructive nature of that indulgence, she makes it clear in Sons.

Penny Baxter in The Yearling yearns to give his  son every advantage, but his family is too poor.  When Penny gives in to Jody’s plea for a pet, the growing fawn’s destructiveness requires both father and son to toughen up.

Johnny Nolan isn’t tough enough to take care of his kids’ physical needs, but he cares for them emotionally in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  Johnny’s arranging years in advance for his daughter to have flowers for her high school graduation is one of the sweetest tokens of a father’s love in literature.

Some of the most interesting father figures in vintage novels are men who acted as father to children who were not their own.  The man who brings up the orphaned Barbara Worth, who affords him respect but no love in Harold Bell Wright’s novel The Winning of Barbara Worth, is an extraordinary man.  So is the crotchety grandfather in  The Portygee. Saddled with care of a grandson, the old man has to learn to turn their mutual dismay into a relationship of mutual respect and caring. (Grandma helps a lot.)

East of Eden by John Steinbeck is a contemporary retelling of the Cain and Abel story.  A father raising two boys whose mother has deserted them, seems to have a knack for saying and doing the wrong thing, setting one son against the other. The novel weighs the roles played by genetics, nurture, and personal choice in determining what a child will become.

Enjoy and evaluate these fathers in vintage novels.

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Picking the 1943 bestsellers to which I wouldn’t give shelf space is easier than choosing three keepers.  Five of the 10 have withstood the ravages of time.

My favorite is Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  The novel is the quintessential American Dream tale. Armed only with grit, love, and a belief in the value of education, a poor Brooklyn in a family rises above poverty.  What teacher can fail to tear up at the picture of Francie and Neely Nolan reading each night from the Protestant Bible and collected works of Shakespeare?

For second place, I’ll choose William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy. another novel about growing up in tough times. A boy too young to fight  gets a job delivering telegrams during World War I. When those telegrams are sent by the War Department, the lad learns about the horrors of war far from the front lines.

For third place, I’ll pick a novel about the other end of life. Mrs. Parkington by Louis Bromfield is a study of a remarkable old lady living each day well. It beats  John P. Marquand’s So Little Time by a nose. Although Marquand is the better writer, and his story the more realistic, I choose Bromfield for its emotional tone.

Bromfield’s Mrs. Parkington inspires readers; Marquand’s Jeff Wilson saddens them.

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