For contemporary readers, the best reading from the 1944 bestsellers are two titles that have by two novelists who are largely unremembered. Each zooms in on behaviors that were outside the norms.
Strange Fruit is Lilian Smith’s story of an interracial couple in the South long before civil rights. The story is not just about race. It focuses on how the personalities of the individuals influence and are influenced by the racial prejudices in their societies.
Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams is a variation on the murder mystery pattern. Readers see all the events leading up to the discovery of a woman’s body. They know the deceased was pathologically jealous and vindictive. What they don’t know until the very end is whether she was murdered or whether she committed suicide. Both possibilities are equally plausible.
Less exciting than either of those titles, but still good reading, is A Bell for Adano by the better-known novelist John Hersey. Although Hersey’s novel is set in occupied territory during World War II, its tone is sweet by comparison to the bestsellers by Smith and by Williams. Its protagonist, Major Joppolo, is not as exciting as the maladjusted characters Smith and Williams describe, but his character, conviction, and common sense make him a more admirable one.
A stodgy New England writer meets a sultry siren with a screw loose, setting the scene for murder and mayhem in Ben Ames Williams riveting novel Leave Her to Heaven.
Richard Harland meets Ellen Berent in New Mexico where she has come with her mother and sister to scatter her father’s ashes. Richard is fascinated by Ellen but something about her troubles him.
He decides he’ll remain a bachelor.
Ellen has other ideas.
Writing off her finance-lawyer, she maneuvers Richard into marriage, telling him, “I will never let you go.”
Ellen is jealous of Richard’s younger brother, Danny; of her sister, Ruth; of Richard’s friends; of his writing — of anything that takes Richard’s attention from her.
There’s a series of unfortunate accidents.
Ellen’s baby is stillborn.
Ellen herself dies of acute gastritis.
About two years later, Richard marries Ruth. They are just home from their honeymoon when Ruth is charged with Ellen’s murder.
To show Ruth’s innocence, her lawyer must show Ellen committed suicide. He puts Richard on the stand and probes the details of his deteriorating relationship with Ellen.
Leave Her to Heaven is well-plotted with keenly-drawn characters. Pristine New England forests provide stark contrast to Ellen’s poisonous malevolence, making this spine-chilling, can’t-put-down reading.
Leave Her to Heaven
By Ben Ames Williams
Houghton Mifflin, 1944
1944 bestseller #7
My Grade: A-
In The Unconquered, Ben Ames Williams picks up the story of the South during the mid-1800s that he began in House Divided.
Having lost their estates, Major Travis Currain and family move to New Orleans where he hopes to revive their fortunes by manufacturing cottonseed oil.
Trav’s old-South family ties and friendship with men of vastly different political persuasions let him see the events of Reconstruction from a variety of angles. Trav refuses to be drawn into Louisiana politics himself, but rising political tensions strike home anyway. Trav’s son, Peter, finds outlet for his sadism in murdering blacks; his daughter, Lucy, marries a former Maine schoolteacher who works for the despised Freedman’s Bureau.
Few writers can handle historical fiction as well as Williams, and here he is in top form.
The Unconquered shows the cauldron of Louisiana politics seething until it boils over, slinging death in all directions. Enough animosity remains for many years of smaller spills.
With the exception of the totally rotten Peter Currain, the characters are each believable mixes of good and bad traits, but Williams makes even Peter believable.
The Unconquered drives home the point that the war isn’t over when the fighting ends—a truism as valid in Iraq or Afghanistan as in Louisiana.
By Ben Ames Williams
Houghton Mifflin, 1953
1953 bestseller #10
My grade A-
House Divided deserves to be dusted off and reread. Ben Ames Williams gives us believable characters, high drama, and superb dialogue, all resting on an extensive base of facts about the War Between the States.
Although the Currain family of Virginia own slaves, they are skeptical of secessionist propaganda and assertions that the South can whip the North. When letters are found revealing that their father was Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, the five adult Currains are shattered. Each attempts to find some way of living down the horrible shame of their kinship to “the black ape.”
As Williams follows the Currains through the war, his characters take the reader close to historical figures like Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth without taking his eye off the Currains. As he shows his characters’ quite ordinary responses to extraordinary situations, readers learn details of daily life in the Confederacy. A less skillful writer would have crammed the facts into fat paragraphs of description.
The novel’s message that “most of us, in the end, stand with our own people,” is worth remembering as we send American soldiers into foreign combat.
If you can heft this whopping novel (1500+ pages), you’ll find House Divided worth reading.
House Divided, a novel of the Civil War
By Ben Ames Williams
Houghton Mifflin, 1947
#7 on 1947 bestseller list
My grade: A-