Larry Gwynne, normally an obedient 10-year-old, plays hooky from school with some other boys one spring day.
Challenged to prove himself in a fight, Larry refuses. The other boys say he’s a coward, like this Quaker mother.
The Majorby Ralph Connor
1918 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg ebook #3249. My grade: C.
From that beginning, Ralph Connor produces a novel about how rural Canadians responded first to the threat and then to the fact of the first World War.
The plot is an amalgam of familiar story lines.
As the title suggests, Larry grows up to become a major in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.
There are several romances in the novel as Larry’s two sisters, some of their friends, and then Larry himself find true love.
There’s also a plot of sorts about Larry’s beloved mother, scrimping to supply the necessities her husband’s inept management deprives them of.
Connor doesn’t actually develop any of the plots: He merely drags them through the same pages together.
The novel is not a bad first draft, but it needs a good working over with a blue pencil to reduce the number of plots, and give more definition to the central characters, and smudge the outlines of the lesser ones.
Connor’s skills improved with practice, as his bestseller the following year shows.
Maria Chapdelaine opens in late winter, just ahead of the ice breakup in the river. With spring, Maria will awaken to love.
Instead of a gushy tale of teenage lovers, however, novelist Louis Hemon delivers something harder, more mature, and more incredible.
Maria’s good looks are enough to attract suitors willing to cross a river and trudge through a road-less forest to the compound where Samuel Chapdelaine’s pioneering family “make land” with axe and saw. Maria’s choice is Francois, a handsome woodsman and Indian trader.
When Francois is lost in a blizzard, Maria is numb with grief. What shall she do for the rest of her life?
She could marry Lorenzo Surprenant and go to live in Boston.
Or she could marry Eutrobe Gagnon and live on a half-cleared farm doing pretty much what she does on her father’s half-cleared farm. If she marries Eutrobe she might, like her mother, have a few words of praise from her husband after she’s dead.
The characters of this novel are the sort of folks you’d want as your neighbors if you were in any sort of trouble, but they aren’t probably folks you’d invite to a party. Simultaneously insignificant and magnificent, their idea of the good life is a game of cards with friends while a smudge pot keeps the mosquitoes at bay.
What Maria decides to do with her life, Hemon implies, is what any of the Quebec pioneers would do. They are “people of a race that knows not how to perish.” Duty and responsibility tied to a sense of community and of their roots gives them the courage to do what needs to be done.
Maria Chapdelaine: A Tale of the Lake St. John Country
Trans. W. H. Blake
Illus. Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Côté
New York 1921
1922 Bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook #4383
Photo Credit: Old coat of arms of Quebec (from the [[Wilfrid Laurier]] monument, Montreal) – personal snapshot by Montrealais. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Gilbert Parker’s The Right of Way is the story of man devoid of human emotion and human intimacy.
The novel opens with a man being acquitted of murder in Montreal thanks to the brilliant summation Charley “Beauty” Steele delivers while “quietly, unnoticeably drunk.”
That night Charley proposes to Kathleen Wantage.
After five years of marriage, Kathleen tells Charley she despises him for ruining her brother, the local minister, and her life. Charley goes off to a dive where the locals beat him up. One man would have fought for Charley, but Charley spurns him with the question, “Have I ever been introduced to you?”
To that point, the novel is absolutely electrifying. But when Charley is fished out of the river by the acquitted murderer to begin a new life in the Canadian forest, the story becomes increasingly implausible with every page.
Parker doesn’t help by trying to shift attention from Charley’s personality to Charley’s lack of religious faith. By comparison to the electrifying picture of Charley the drunkard Montreal lawyer, Charley the agnostic tailor is a bore.
Parker gets his power back in the deathbed scene:
“I beg—your—pardon,” [Charley] whispered to the imagined figure, and the light died out of his eyes, “have I—ever—been—introduced—to you?”
Unfortunately, by that time eventually clichés and coincidences have sucked the oxygen from the plot. If Parker had only written a shorter novel, as his foreword says he originally intended, he might have produced a great piece of literature.
On his death bed, James Grenfell Kent, 36, sergeant in the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, confesses to a murder he didn’t commit. From his deathbed, he also falls in love with the mysterious raven-haired beauty, Maretta, who tells him she knows who really committed the murder.
Instead of dying, Kent recovers, which means he’ll be hanged for the murder, unless someone else is found guilty, in which case he’ll do 10-20 for deathbed perjury.
Finding either of those outcomes undesirable, Kent plots his escape.
The plan misfires.
Kent finds the Mounties Inspector Kedsty dead, strangled with black hair, and Maretta standing over the body.
Kent and Maretta flee, becoming separated when their boat breaks apart in river rapids. Desolate, Kent wanders for almost two years before heading toward Maretta’s home in the Valley of Silent Men.
There he learns how Maretta knew he had not killed Barkley and discovers how she was involved with Kedsty.
There’s a happy ending, all mysteries solved except why the legalistic Mounties decide not to place those perjury charges.
James Oliver Curwood’s plot is absurd and his characters utterly implausible, but his description of the Canadian scenery is breathtaking. This is one novel that you’ll enjoy most by ignoring the story and focusing on the descriptive passages.