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dark landscape of forbidding  rocky hills

The wilderness is a frightening place.

In the Wilderness is an antidote to salacious later twentieth century bestsellers.

But Robert Hichens’ novel is strong stuff that many readers may find hard to swallow.


In the Wilderness by Robert Hichens
1917 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #4603] My grade: A-

Dion Leith is passionately in love with Rosamund Everard, who finds him a nice, clean-living young man. Though trained as a singer, Rosamund feels her vocation is in a religious order, not marriage.

A sermon convinces her to accept Dion’s proposal. They marry, have a son.

Rosamund’s love is all for their son. She scarcely notices when the woman in a notorious divorce case pays attention to Dion.

When the Boer War breaks out, Dion volunteers. In his absence, Rosamund moves to an English cathedral village where her music and religious interests are welcome.

When he returns from South Africa, Dion accidentally shoots his son while the two shooting together at Rosamund’s suggestion.

Rosamund screams, “Murderer,” and locks the cottage door against Dion.

Repudiating the values that locked the door on him, Dion leaves England for non-Western, non-Christian places, for drugs, debauchery, and the Other Woman.

Hichens doesn’t deliver a tidy, happily-ever-after ending.

It’s more of a “we’re going to grow up together” ending, a glimmer of hope that two very dissimilar people can create more happiness than unhappiness for each other.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Tell No Man is the story of a rising young stockbroker involved in a passionate affair with a sexy socialite to whom he’s been married several years.

Service in Korea shook Hank Garvin badly. When a long-time friend commits suicide, Hank’s foundation gives way.


 

Tell No Man by Adela Rogers St. Johns

Doubleday, 1966. 444 pages. 1966 bestseller #7. My grade: A.


1966-07_tellnomanShortly thereafter, Hank has a Damascus Road experience.

Like Paul, Hank’s ready to chuck everything to follow Jesus, believing he will do the same works Jesus did.

Mellie, Hank’s atheist wife, is ready to chuck Hank if he persists in going into the ministry.

Hank is convinced Mellie will stick with him.

She does, but soon realizes she “didn’t come first with Hank any more. God came first.”

That changes their marriage.

Adela Rogers St. Johns chose Mellie’s godmother, a Bible-reading Catholic and veteran Chicago newspaper reporter, to tell the story.  Her credentials give the narration authority: She is well-placed to know, to see, to speak truth.

I rarely find religious novels inspiring. This one is not just inspiring but inspiring in practical ways.

The events that lead up to the story’s climax will be familiar to anyone who’s read religious novels.

The climax, itself, however, is both a logical outgrowth of St. Johns’ plot line — and an absolutely stunning surprise.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Laddie is the pride and joy of the Stanton family and hero to his youngest sister, who tells his story.

When Laddie asks Little Sister to deliver a letter to a Princess in the big wood, she discovers Laddie has fallen for a English lovely girl just moved to the neighborhood. Little Sister approves of the courtship, although her mother doesn’t.

Pamela Pryor’s family got off to a bad start with their God-fearing neighbors in the 1900s mid-west farming community. They think the English newcomers are heathen.

With Little Sister’s help, Laddie’s romance prospers and the Pryor family brought into the good graces of the community.

The plot is hackneyed and the main characters straight off the shelf, but the minor characters and minor incidents are jewels.

Although Gene Stratton-Porter imbues Little Sister with a child’s literal mind, no one would ever think the writing was by an elementary school child.

Nor is the story written for children. Stratton-Porter is talking to adults about how to live out Biblical principles in everything from showing hospitality to environmentally friendly farming practices.

Part romance, part morality play, Laddie escapes being saccharine because Little Sister and her older brother Leon are funny kids.

Laddie:  A True Blue Story
by Gene Stratton-Porter
Grosset & Dunlap, 1913
541 pages
1913 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook # 286
My Grade B-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Bible in pew

When the aged rector of St. Johns dies in a booming mid-western city, the vestry look East for “a level-headed clergyman about thirty-five years old who will mind his own business.”

They hit on John Hodder.

For a year, Hodder more than lives up to their expectations. But gnawing at the back of his mind is a sense that the business of the church is making Christians.

Hodder learns that people living around St. John’s despise the church because they suffer daily from the effects of the church leaders’ “sound business sense.”

On the verge of chucking his job, Hodder meets a former member of St. Johns known throughout the city as a man who helps others. Mr. Bentley inspires Hodder to rethink his theology.

Hodder denounces his congregation’s Pharisees, including the major financial contributor whose daughter Hodder loves.

The central dilemma of Winston Churchill’s  The Inside of the Cup is ageless. The novel, however, is done in by Churchill’s ponderous prose. Hodder appears incapable of ordering coffee in less than 500 words.

Whatever value readers of 1913 found in The Inside of the Cup has evaporated.

Or perhaps it just was displaced by the weight of all those words.

The Inside of the Cup
by Winston Churchill
Illustrations by Howard Giles
MacMillan, 1913
513 pages
Project Gutenberg e-book #5364
My grade: C

Photo credit: Bible in Pew by sraburton

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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As a child, Dinny Brumm refuses to take anything from his father. His Aunt Martha and Uncle Miles tell him his father, whom he’s never seen, deserted his mother. They lead him to believe his father cares nothing for him.

In his hatred of his father, Dinny even takes their name lest he be linked to his father, newspaper magnate Zandy Craig.

Dinny finds a letter his dying mother wrote to him before he was born. It tells of her love for his father and how she found peace through forgiving those who had hurt her.

Dinny decides to see if forgiving others will help him feel better and win the woman he loves.

The plot is contrived, the main characters emotionally implausible. Douglas creates situations that he quickly drops, such as Dinny’s half-sister’s attempt to seduce him.

Although Forgive Us Our Trespasses is tinged with religiosity, author Lloyd C. Douglas stays far away from religion. He explores forgiveness as a tool for psychological health.

Despite the novel’s tacked-on happy ending, the only characters who seem likely to have any lasting happiness are Dinny’s aunt and uncle, who, despite their shortcomings, seem to have some genuine faith in something besides themselves.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses
by Lloyd C. Douglas
Grosset & Dunlap, 1932
369 pages
1933 bestseller #6
My grade C-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Harold Bell Wright’s The Calling of Dan Matthews is so unusual a religious novel, it deserves to be called unique.  Although it didn’t make the bestseller list when it was published in 1909, I’m reviewing it here as one of the notable novels of the 20th century.

The Calling of Dan Matthews rontpiece illustration and title page

While fishing, an Ozark Mountain doctor meets a boy who impresses him with his mind and personality. Dr. Oldham hopes the boy will become a doctor, too. Instead Dan Matthews chooses to go into the ministry.

Dan’s first pastorate is in Corinth where the now-retired doctor is on hand if needed. Dan’s good looks and ignorance of human nature land him in hot water almost immediately.

Although his congregation finds no fault with his sermons, (except that they aren’t what they are used to) Brother Matthews offends them by his undignified behavior: he does manual labor on a farm to win the respect of farmers and get them to church, and helps a crippled Catholic lad with the garden that he and his mother depend on for their livelihood.

Dan’s growing affection for a young nurse who thinks the church is an un-Christian organization is the final straw for the Corinth church people.

Dan is not merely a good Christian with a heart for people. There are plenty of religious novels with that sort of central character. What makes Dan such an unusual lead character is his naiveté.

Nothing in his backwoods upbringing or his theological training prepared Dan for church politics. At the denomination’s annual convention, as his enemies convey the unmistakable message that no God-fearing congregation would want him, Dan knows he’s done for, but scarcely knows how it happened.

Wright’s own experiences provide details that outsiders couldn’t invent. Because of  what his congregation regarded as anti-church sentiment in the novel, Wright was forced out of the ministry.

The novel suffers from the usual flaws of religious-romance novels: both the religion and the romance are too sentimental. A more serious problem, however, is that Dan—and perhaps Wright himself—seem to label folks as hypocrites when they are merely stupid. The outcomes may be the same, but their causation is not. I suspect the God who looketh on the heart would know the difference, even if the novel’s author doesn’t.

In 1935, The Calling of Dan Matthews was made into a black and white film that turned  the church leaders into villains so evil that the Borgias look saintly by comparison. Sadly, film is remembered as a story of what really goes on in churches.

Wright’s nuanced novel is merely footnoted  as the first American novel to sell over a million copies—and it achieved that prominence without making the bestseller list the year it was published. Wright is said to be the first novelist to become a millionaire.

The Calling of Dan Matthews
by Harold Bell Wright
Illustrated by Arthur I. Keller
The Book Supply Company, 1909
364 pages
Not on the 1909 bestseller list
Project Gutenberg Ebook #9314

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Frank Yerby’s speciality is novels about men and women who rise from poverty to wealth, fame, and marital bliss through their brilliance, loyalty, and sexual prowess.

Yerby sets The Saracen Blade in the 13th century. Pietro di Donati, a blacksmith’s son, is born on the same day and in same town as the baby who will become Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire.

In that era, the aristocracy ruled by violence, usually having become aristocrats by violence. Though slightly built, inclined to intellectual rather than physical pursuits, Pietro becomes part of the violent world in which kingdoms clash, religions compete, and the poor suffer the consequences.

Pietro seeks his fortune in the only way boys of his era know: attaching himself to powerful knight and hoping to rise with him. For 30 years, he trudges around Europe, North Africa, and Asia as squire, knight, Crusader and trader. He pauses occasionally to admire the women and to retch when someone other than himself inflicts mayhem.

When Pietro finally gets back home, his childhood sweetheart is waiting. By that time, I was ready to retch.

I recommend reading the appendix. Yerby’s notes are better than his novel.

The Saracen Blade
Frank Yerby
Dial Press (book club edition), 1952
1952 Bestseller #9
295 pages + notes
My grade: C
©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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