We here in the Northeaster U.S. have had a long, hard winter.
We’re ready to enjoy some sunshine.
Even if the temperature doesn’t climb above 40 tomorrow, you can bask in the warmth of smiles with one of these funny vintage novels.
The Reivers is a folksy, rambling tale William Faulkner puts in the mouth of Lucius Priest, an old man telling an “when I was your age” tell to his grandson.
Lucius recounts how in 1905 when he was 11, he and two pals who worked at the family’s freight business borrowed his grandfather’s automobile and drove from Jefferson, Mississippi, up to Memphis, Tennessee.
One of the men traded the automobile for a horse, intending to win—how could they not win?—repurchase the auto with part of the proceeds, and come back home ahead of the game.
The Reivers has the kind of corny absurdity that’s a hallmark of country folk who know how to entertain themselves when nothing much is happening.
If The Reivers is humor for humor’s sake, Fran is humor for satire’s sake.
Writing in 1912, John Breckenridge Ellis uses Fran to satirize the “deserving orphan” novel formula that was wildly popular from the time of Charles Dickens until World War II, when the supply of orphans in the US and Britain dried up.
Orphaned after the death of her mother, Fran seeks out the scoundrel who abandoned her late mother, announces she plans to make his home her home, and does.
Ellis makes Fran’s father a hypocritical philanthropist, which give Ellis the chance to lampoon the pseudo-religious as well as the orphan novel formula.
Fran’s youthful appearance—she’s nearly 20 but looks about 13—allow Ellis to put her through the typical experiences of all fictional rescued orphans, such as going to school, dressing properly, and learning to be polite.
Fran’s school experiences are a hoot. Here’s a sample of what happens:
“Fran,” [school superintendent] Abbott reasoned, “if we put you in a room where you can understand the things we try to teach, if we make you thorough—”
“I don’t want to be thorough,” she explained, “I want to be happy. I guess all that schools were meant to do is to teach folks what’s in books, and how to stand in a straight line. The children in Class A, or Class B have their minds sheared and pruned to look alike; but I don’t want my brain after anybody’s pattern.”
In Claire Ambler, Booth Tarkington uses humor to edify.
Claire Ambler is an American heiress with unswerving loyalty to herself. She’s a flapper of the jazz age, blissfully seeing herself as the center of the world.
“All her life—even when she was a child—she had seemed to be not one person but two. One was an honest person and the other appeared to be an artist. The honest person did the feeling and most of the thinking; but the artist directed her behaviour and cared about nothing except picturesque effects.”
Tarkington lets Clair flap until it’s clear to readers, if not to Clair herself, that her self-centeredness is not simply funny: It’s downright dangerous.
The Reivers is readily available from libraries and online book sources in a a variety of editions and formats. There’s also a film version, if you’d rather view than read.
Fran is available for download free at Project Gutenberg.
Claire Ambler is not available either through Project Gutenberg or in re-issue. I recommend you try WorldCat to see if it is available in a library near you.
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