Ship of Fools is vehicle for unpleasant truths

Ship of Fools is not a pleasant story, but Katherine Anne Porter’s rendition of the ship of the world voyaging to certain disaster makes compelling reading.

A German ship, the Vera, leaves Veracruz, Mexico, for Bremerhaven, Germany Aug. 22, 1931. Most of the first class passengers are ex-patriots returning home. They are joined by a sprinkling of students going to study in Europe, tourists, Catholic priests, and an aging Spanish Contessa who has been deported from Cuba for political reasons.

In steerage are 876 Spanish agricultural workers being deported from Cuba because the sugar industry in which they worked has failed.

Despite the number of characters, Porter makes them distinctive individuals. Each elicits , if not sympathy, at least a measure of understanding.

Being confined in a small ship for 27 days brings out the cruelty and bigotry of individuals. National and religious biases are magnified. All leave the ship with relief at finally being home in a familiar, comfortable place.

Readers see what the voyagers do not: home will not be better. Europe will soon be torn apart by cruelty and bigotry on a colossal scale, yet World War II will change nothing. People will remain blind to any interests but their own.

Ship of Fools
Katherine Anne Porter
Little, Brown 1962
497 pages
 1962 #1
My grade B+
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni
 

The Family: People without Passports

A Russian family, “ex-big, ex-great, ex-prosperous” has dwindled to five members living in Tientsin, China in 1937. They operate a boarding house whose rooms they rent to a rag-tag assortment of people of various nationalities whose lives are defined in terms of what they no longer have.

The family is loving, interested in life, and hopeful for the future.

Before long, the Japanese invade China and the family’s already precarious financial situation becomes dire.

Mother has to let the young people leave: Lida to become an American war bride, Dima to be adopted by a lonely English woman, Peter to be smuggled back into Russia. As the biological family scatters, Mother loves the boarders into becoming a family.

Nina Fedorova’s fluid prose will be welcomed by anyone put off by the dense, turgid paragraphs that mark most Russian works. She writes with wit, and  sensitivity about the struggles of people whose lives consist mainly of looking for work and doing without. By then end of The Family, however, her praise of strong women slips into sentimentality.

Despite that sentimentality, The Family remains an eye-opening glimpse of the lives of people without passports in a hostile world.

The Family
by Nina Fedorova
Little, Brown, 1940
346 pages
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Night in Bombay Excites the Senses

In Night in Bombay, novelist Louis Bromfield plunges readers into 1930’s India, submerges them in its sounds and smells, and holds them until the subcontinent beats in their pulses.

Bill Wainwright is in Bombay on business when he runs into his ex-wife, Carol, a gorgeous blonde living off a string of suitors. She mentions meeting a missionary on the train. From her description, Bill knows it’s his former Cornell roommate, Buck Merrill.

Tropical diseases, hard work, and his frigid late wife have debilitated Buck. Influential Indians want him well enough to continue his work helping rural Indians become self-sufficient. Bill suggests Buck enjoy a vacation at the Taj Mahal Hotel where he and Carol are staying.

Buck and Carol fall for each other, and Bill realizes that he loved Carol all along.

If this novel has a fault, it’s that the exotic locale and seemingly stereotypical characters mislead readers into expecting fluff. Bromfield doesn’t do fluff. In Night in Bombay, he takes the “beauty is only skin deep” cliché and twists it into more variations than a Rubic’s cube.

Take time to savor the sensual richness and complex characters of this cinemagraphic novel. It’s as exotic as a vacation to the Far East.

Night in Bombay
By Louis Bromfield
Grosset & Dunlap, 1940
351 pages
1940 Bestseller # 9

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Loser Oliver Wiswell’s View of Revolution Is a Winner

In Oliver Wiswell, Kenneth Roberts explores history from Bunker Hill to Yorktown from the perspective of a Loyalist historian who views the revolution as “the American Civil War.”

Oliver Wiswell rescues Tom Buell from a mob of the Sons of Liberty who turn the pair and Oliver’s dying father from their Massachusetts home.

Oliver and Tom wind up as British spies. Their spying takes them to England and France, but Oliver never forgets the girl he left in Massachusetts.

Later Oliver and Tom go back to the colonies to see what’s happening to the Loyalists. The two are in New York when Cornwallis surrenders to Washington.

Afterward, the Loyalists have to flee. Some go south to the Caribbean. Oliver and Tom lead an emigration to Canada.

This novel’s historical detail is more interesting than either its plot or its fictional characters. Roberts makes the usual points about both sides in a war being bad, equally disillusioned, equally disgusted by incompetent leadership.

Where the novel shines, however, is in showing how both rebels and loyalists were insulted by British criticism of Americans. Perhaps if American diplomats were to read Oliver Wiswell, they’d have better insight into contemporary events in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, and Java.

Oliver Wiswell
By Kenneth Roberts
Doubleday, Doran, 1940
836 pages
1940 Bestseller #7
My Grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

For Whom the Bell Tolls Goes Inside an Insurgency

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a gripping and thought-provoking look at war from the perspective of guerrilla fighters worn down by years of sniping.

The novel is about Robert Jordan, an American fighting  with the Communist International Brigades against fascists in Spain in the 1930s.  The freedom fighters are a handful of men and two women who have lost homes and families in the civil war.

Jordan is ordered to rally local freedom fighters to blow up a mountain bridge, timing the blast to cut off reinforcements when the communist attack elsewhere.  Jordan blows the bridge, but his superiors bundle the operation.

The novel’s plot feels familiar. You can easily imagine Tom Hanks playing Jordan. What isn’t familiar is the perspective.

The guerrillas aren’t sainted freedom fighters. Some who believed in The Cause are disillusioned. Some enjoy killing. Some seek power. Some have nothing else to do.

Hemingway’s prose is straightforward but not sparse. He shows the swiftness of death, the malingering  memories of killing and violence. His characters relive what they cannot forget, looking for absolution.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is worth rereading in a day when a half-dozen civil wars fester an almost every continent.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway
Scribner, 1940
#4 on the 1940 bestseller list
#5 on the 1941 bestseller list
My grade: A

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Mrs. Miniver Finds Something Good Every Day

Of all my favorite novels, Mrs. Miniver is undoubtedly the worst.

The characters are pleasant, but not memorable.

It doesn’t have a plot; Jan Struther’s chapters were originally printed as short stories in The Times of London, and they remain short stories.

The writing is good, but not brilliant.

Despite all those flaws, I usually spend New Year’s Day reading Mrs. Miniver.

The Minivers are an intelligent, cultured, fundamentally decent couple. As a second world war becomes inevitable, the household gets gas masks, the children are evacuated to safer schools, Clem joins the anti-aircraft corps, his wife signs on as an ambulance driver.

In a topsy-turvy world, the Miniver household is emotionally stable and comfortable. The Minivers don’t dwell on worst-case scenarios. They concentrate on looking for something good today to be thankful for. Even the youngest, Toby, lugging his Teddy bear as he goes to be fitted for his gas mask, finds something to chuckle about.

Without preaching, Mrs. Miniver reminds us of the debt each person owes to the world, and shows that the most ordinary human interaction can be an extraordinary blessing if we allow it to be.

Mrs. Miniver
By Jan Struther
Harcourt, Brace 1940
288 pages
My grade: B-

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Disenchanted shows nothing destroys like success

Shep Stearns  is thrilled when studio mogul Victor Milgrim pairs him with his hero, Pulitzer-winning novelist Manley Halliday, to turn Shep’s screenplay concept into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Halliday hasn’t produced a novel in years, is over his eyebrows in debt, diabetic, and hanging on to sobriety by his fingernails.

Shep doesn’t know any of that. To him, Manley is the epitome of youthful success, an embodiment of the beautiful life Shep wants for himself.

Unwittingly, Shep provides an audience for Manley’s recollections of his life as a  ’20s celebrity and gives him enough booze to ruin both their screenwriting careers.

The character of Manley is a fictional amalgam of the big name writers of the 1920s when the cult of celebrity — idolizing the famous for being famous — began.  However, Budd Schulberg’s allusions to writers, actors, politicians who were household words in the years between the great wars make The Disenchanted feel more like creative nonfiction than a novel.

Schulberg’s plot is packed with Hollywoodish implausabilities, but his depictions of a would-be writer and a has-been writer make the book can’t-put-down reading.

The novel suggests dozens of reasons why promising writers don’t fulfill their promise, but concludes, “There is never a simple reason for not writing a book or not writing your best.”

The Disenchanted
By  Budd Schulberg
1950 bestseller #10
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Llewellyn’s Valley Is Still Springtime Fresh

Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley is a nostalgic glimpse of life in days that were at once rougher and gentler than our own.

When the story opens, narrator Huw Morgan is just a boy in a Welsh household made prosperous by the combined wages of his father and brothers who work the coal mines.

As mines everywhere shut, plentiful labor forces wages down. The Morgan household splits over attempts to unionize the mine. Miners strike, but the strike fails.

A new minister in the valley takes an interest in Huw and encourages him to go to school, where he excels. Huw refuses to go to college. He chooses life in the mine over a profession.

A series of fresh disasters strike the valley: mining accidents, a rift in the local congregation over the minister’s relationship with Huw’s sister. The valley grows bleak and barren.

Although Huw tells the story in a flashback, he tells it basically from the perspective of what he saw, felt, and understood at the age when the events happened. Llewellyn’s novel takes readers into an interior world the classic film version of the novel does not capture.

Experience youth again: Read How Green Was My Valley.

How Green Was My Valley
By Richard Llewellyn
Macmillian, 1940
494 pages
1940 bestseller #1
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni