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original "Good Woman" cover with author's dedicationEmma Downes is a good woman.

Deserted by her husband, she started a business, supported herself, raised their son, now a missionary in Africa, and became a force to be reckoned with in her church.


A Good Woman by Louis Bromfield
Frederick A. Stokes, 1927. 432 pp. 1927 bestseller #10. My grade: A.

When natives attack Phillip’s African mission, Phillip escapes, dragging his virgin wife back to the states with him.

Missionaries board steam locomotive in Congo about 1900.

Phillip and Naomi left Africa after their mission was attacked.

Naomi would have preferred martyrdom, but Phillip has lost faith in his mother’s God and in his missionary calling.

Back home, Phillip takes a laborer’s job in the mills while his mother tries to put a good face on things — tough work, especially when her husband shows up after a 26 year absence.

Louis Bromfield builds his complex plot from the story’s setting and the personalities of his characters.

Bromfield draws Emma with deft strokes. She has guts, stamina, business acumen, determination, but she’s also manipulative, controlling, and self-deluded.

Emma’s religion is “ a practical, businesslike instrument of success,” her God conveniently pocket-sized, but Emma doesn’t know that.

Some of the incidents are shocking, but not unbelievable. The superficial way Bromfield relates horrific events powerfully suggests they are too awful to be spoken of.

Emma hasn’t a clue what Christianity is all about. Her cluelessness makes this book important — and vastly entertaining—90 years after its initial publication.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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As The Tribe That Lost Its Head opens, Oxford-educated Dinamaula Maula, 22, is returning home to become chief of his people on the British protectorate of Pharamaul, 600 miles west of South Africa.

From that beginning, Nicholas Monsarrat weaves a complex plot about complex people trying to govern a country moving from colonialism to independence.


The Tribe That Lost Its Head by Nicholas Monsarrat

William Sloane, 1956.  598 pp. 1956 bestseller #8. My grade: A.


Front dust jacket of has white lettering on wood-grain backgroundThe Maula are, for the most part, simple people: herdsmen, fishermen, domestic servants.

The British officials in Paramaul are dedicated civil servants on good terms with the Maula population.

Neither group expects or wants sudden change.

Before the plane lands, Dinamaula’s remarks to a journalist unwittingly set the country up for savage, black-white confrontation.

Under the press of fatigue, self-pity, the goading of the gutter press, and the merciless African heat, leaders on both sides flub crucial opportunities to maintain peace.

Monsarrat’s characters come alive in a few precise words: “a human windsock,” “a professional sore thumb.”

The plot includes political intrigue, romance, social comedy, and military campaigns.

Underneath all that is an appreciation for the challenges of governing an African nation in the 20th century.

As news from Somalia, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic stream across our TVs and tablets, The Tribe That Lost Its Head is as pertinent as it was upon publication in 1956.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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I had no difficulty picking my favorite of the 1955 bestsellers. Something of Value by Robert Ruark is head and shoulders above the rest.

Marjorie Morningstar would be my number two choice of the best of 1955 bestsellers. Herman Wouk’s exploration of a start-struck girl’s growing up won’t ever go out of date, but it’s too personal to have the impact that Ruark’s broad canvas achieves.

Photo of Robert RuarkNot only is Something of Value well-plotted and peopled with believable fictional characters, but it is written with a reporters eye for telling detail.

With Africa’s rise as a center of influence, the background Ruark presents in an accessible fashion presents a timely introduction to one of its most rapidly developing nations: Kenya.

In the foreword written in 1954, Ruark says

This is considerably more than a book about the Mau Mau terror which has claimed constant attention on the front pages of the world for the last two years. A great deal has been written about the Mau Mau. A great deal of foolishness has been committed in the failure of the British to recognize that what they saw happening to themselves in Kenya was not, as they first thought, a local brush fire but a symptomatic ulcer of the evil and unrest which currently afflict the world.

…..

This might be possibly a true story of Kenya and of the events over the last fifty years which lead to the present tragedy of the Mau Mau uprising, with all its sadistic murder and counter-murder. The book is completely true in reporting that its early skeletal structure rests on stony fact, which may be found in reference as fact. Some of these facts have been altered and condensed to comply with novel form, a it always customary But they remain facts. The characters in this book are entirely fictitious.

There is much blood in the book. There is much killing. But the life of Africa was washed earlier by blood, and its ground was, and skill is fertilized by the blood of its people and its animals. This is not a pretty book….And it certainly is not a political book.

A North Carolina native, Ruark served in the navy during World War II.  Afterward, he became a newspaperman. achieving national prominenance as a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain.

Ruark’s love of hunting, fishing, and the outdoors in general led him to Africa. That in turn inspired him to abandon the security of New York and a regular paycheck for the uncertainty of freelance writing.

Ruark said , “Without the African experience, there would have been no topics for the scores of articles and stories and the two books which have combined to make me financially secure…”

He had published five nonfiction books and 500 magazine articles before Something of Value. In all, Ruark published 12 novels, including the 1959 bestseller Poor No More. A list of his novels are on the Robert Ruark Society website.

On his death in 1965 at age 49, Ruark left all his letters (including one containing the quote above), manuscripts, and published work to the The University of North Carolina.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Robert Ruark’s Something of Value is a gory and compassionate novel about Kenya that will fascinate readers and leave them with plenty to think about as well.


Something of Value by Robert Ruark

Doubleday, 1955, 566 pages. 1955 bestseller #6. My grade: A+.


Spine of "Something of Value" shows tangle of long grassPeter McKenzie and Kimani, his Kikuyu pal, were raised together in Kenya.

When Kimani’s father lands in jail for failing to prevent midwives from killing a baby in accordance with native customs, Kimani blames himself: He brought a curse on his family by allowing  Peter’s brother-in-law to slap him.

Kimani has to kill the white man to remove the curse.

Thinking he has murdered a white man, Kimani flees and stumbles into a band of renegade blacks.

The outlaws become a guerrilla army, the Mau Mau, poised to throw off white rule.

Kimani is one of their leaders.

Peter, meanwhile, has become a great hunter. When an overeager Mau Mau band slaughters his sister’s family, Peter finds himself hunting his boyhood pal.

Travel, adventure, history, romance, politics—all are within these pages.

Without being preachy, Ruark makes the point that whites deprived black Africans of their religion and gave them in sham Christianity in its place, leaving them with no moral compass.

Renewed interest in Africa—particularly by communist China—make this novel timely.

Compelling writing makes it timeless.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Judgment House is a complex novel about the marriage of a beautiful woman thwarted in love who settles for power.

Jasmine Grenfel loves the poor but ambitious diplomat Ian Stafford, but marries the unpolished Rudyard Byng and the three million pounds he’s made in South Africa.

Jasmine’s intelligence and social skills make their English home a center of political and financial power. Unfortunately, Jasmine is too self-centered to hear when her husband tells her he finds their London life meaningless.

Meanwhile, Byng’s financial and political interests are threatened by a traitor who is passing information to Paul Krueger, Byng’s and England’s arch enemy in South Africa. Byng refuses to think his native servant could be the traitor.

The second Boer War erupts as their Byng’s marriage teeters on the brink of collapse. Byng and Ian go off to fight for British interests in South Africa.

Jasmine takes advantage of the war to discretely leave her husband under the guise of running a hospital ship for the wounded soldiers.

In The Judgment House, Sir Gilbert Parker wrote a female lead as complex as Fleur Forsyte, a male lead as exciting as Rhett Butler, and a superb supporting cast, yet not one of the characters comes to life.

Gilbert pulls all the threads together with a too-neat, too romantic ending for a story that begs for mature realism. Sadly, Gilbert just doesn’t have the dialog-writing skill to make The Judgment House story real.

The Judgment House
By Gilbert Parker
1913 bestseller #4
Project Gutenberg EBook #3746
39 chapters

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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One of the best known novels of the Great War Era didn’t make the bestseller lists.

Tarzan of the Apes, first published as a magazine serial in 1912 and then released as a book in 1914,  catapulted author Edgar Rice Burroughs to fame. Tarzan became a icon.

Lord and Lady Greystoke are first marooned, then slaughtered in Africa. Their infant son, John, is adopted by a female ape and raised as her offspring, Tarzan, which means “white skin.”

Tarzan grows to be leader of the apes, but longs for human companionship.

He rejects much of what he sees of people. However, when a scientific expedition lands, Tarzan finds civilization does have something desirable, namely Jane Porter, daughter of the expedition’s leader.

When the expedition heads back to Baltimore, Tarzan trades his loincloth for a suit and takes off in pursuit of Jane. Tarzan learns his true identity and behaves as befits an English gentleman.

The story is totally preposterous, full of implausible situations, inaccurate information, and blatant stereotypes. Except for Tarzan, men are stupid, self-serving, and often savage.

This is pure pulp fiction, yet it’s easy to see why the book thrilled generations of youngsters: Tarzan is simply great fun.

Tarzan of the Apes
By Edgar Rice Burroughs
1914
Project Gutenberg ebook #78
©2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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