Cold Mountain (novel)

Mountains in deep shades of blue
The mountain looks cold.

Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is a rarity: A Civil War novel that isn’t written in clichés.

At Petersburg, Confederate soldier Inman was fatally wounded but he survived anyway. In chapter 1, he steps from a hospital window and starts for Cold Mountain, hoping Ada has waited for him.

Ada had come to Cold Mountain with her father. Inman wrangled an introduction. Before he left, she and Inman had an understanding.  While Inman was away, Ada’s father died.

Ada is educated, but she has no domestic skills. On her own, she couldn’t survive. A neighbor sends Ruby to Ada. Ruby can’t read or write, but she can bargain. She offers to teach Ada how to run a farm. They’ll work together, eat together, but not live together. “Everybody empties their own night jar,” Ruby says.

While Inman hikes home, trying to stay healthy and avoid being caught as a deserter, the women try to keep a roof over their heads, stockpile food and fuel for the winter, and avoid marauding soldiers.

Frazier makes his characters and settings come alive in prose that never uses an unfamiliar word when a familiar one will work, never tells what he can show.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Atlantic Monthly Press. ©1997. 356 p.
1997 bestseller #2; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Heaven and Hell

Front cover has 1 image suggesting 1800s western plains,1 suggesting Reconstruction-era South.Heaven and Hell is the novelistic equivalent of a film with “a cast of thousands” but no leading man or woman.

The novel is the third volume of John Jakes’ North and South trilogy and shouldn’t be read without reading the prior volumes, preferably with little time between the readings.

Of the leading men of volume one, Orry Main is dead and Charles Hazard emotionally deadened by America’s War Between the States.

The men’s family, friends, and enemies are scattered from South Carolina to California.

Jakes attempts to follow what happened to all characters, jumping in a single chapter from character to character, state to state, often separating the fictional events with quotations from newspaper headlines and other contemporaneous sources.

Jakes’ featured characters, who even in the trilogy’s first volume were scarcely more memorable than Danielle Steel’s, are as distinctive as anatomy class skeletons.

The history in the novel, particularly the rise of the Klu Klux Klan and its terror tactics, is the most interesting aspect of the book.

Unfortunately, Jakes finishes by restoring his leading characters who survived the war to a semblance of normality. The one exception is the blacks, whose post-war situation is as bad in different ways as the pre-war one.

Heaven and Hell by John Jakes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ©1987. 700 p.
1987 bestseller #9; my grade: C-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

 

Love and War

collage of icons for North and South are on front cover of “Love and War”
Icons suggest splintered focus

In Love and War, volume two of John Jakes’ trilogy about America’s war between the states, Jakes shows there was nothing civil about it.

In North and South, knowing war was inevitable, George Hazard of Pennsylvania and Orry Main of South Carolina had vowed nothing would destroy their friendship forged at West Point Military Academy.

In Love and War Jakes shows the difficulty of keeping that vow.

In his struggle to follow a dozen members of the two families, Jakes writes chapters that are crazy quilts of story patches.

An extra line of leading signals a change of focus to a different character. The characters themselves are paper dolls moved around on a map.

Jakes’ stuffs the novel with historical trivia which, while interesting, underscore the disjointedness of his storytelling.

Jakes toils to show all his “good characters” developing sympathy for people who are not like them social, economically, or racially, but he doesn’t succeed.

The novel’s only nuanced interracial interaction that of southern belle Brett Hazard and freed slave she assists in running a school for orphaned Black children.

Love and War ultimately proves that in fiction, as in race relations, emotional ties can be built only with individuals, not with abstractions.

Love and War by John Jakes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1st ed. ©1984. 1019 p.
1984 bestseller #4. My grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

North and South

images of steel mill and West Point cadet separated by words NORTH AND SOUTH from image of South Carolina plantation
the people are all 1-dimensional

Take all the novels you’ve ever read about America’s Civil War, put them in your Magic Bullet, push the on button, and you’d have John Jakes’s novel North and South.

The novel contrasts two families whose ancestors came to America in the 1600s.

The Mains were aristocratic French Protestants who settled in South Carolina.

The first Hazard in America was a working-class English teen who had murdered his stepfather. That lad went to work in the Pennsylvania iron industry.

In 1842 Orry Main and Charles Hazard meet as plebes at the Military Academy at West Point. They become life-long friends despite their different temperaments and backgrounds.

Jakes follows the two men and their families up through Lincoln’s election and the South’s secession.

The dust jacket notes say the novel is “filled with memorable characters, many of them captured from the pages of history.”

Actually, all the memorable characters are from history.

Jakes gives his fictional characters labels and then moves them around like paper dolls.

It’s interesting that Congressman Daniel Boone proposed a bill to close the Military Academy, which was regarded contemptuously in both North and South, but historical trivia is insufficient compensation for characters who are stereotypes.

North and South by John Jakes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1st ed. ©1982. 740 p.
1982 bestseller #8. My grade: C

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Foxes of Harrow not worth digging out

Steven Fox arrives in New Orleans in 1825, broke and friendless.

By his gambling and his good looks, he makes a fortune and buys land, working along side his slaves to make it prosper.


The Foxes of Harrow by Frank Yerby

Dial Press, 1946. 408 p. 1946 bestseller #6. My grade: C-.


Before long Harrow is the greatest plantation in Louisiana, its manor house a gem on the Mississippi.

Steven marries Odalie Orceneaux by whom he has two children.

After her death he marries her sister, Aurore.

And on the side he has a quadroon mistress.

As Harrow grows more prosperous and influential, the South prepares for war. Steven lays aside his anti-secession principles to fight for the South.

In the introduction to The Foxes of Harrow, Frank Yerby makes the glory and ruin of Harrow Plantation almost palpable, but the story never lives up to its setting.

Yerby starts out writing about people in the pre-Civil War South, and ends up writing an historical novel about the South.

The characters, too, are not consistent.

Initially conniving, thieving, self-centered, and cruel, Steven magically becomes loyal, generous, and statesmanlike by the book’s end.

The best thing to be said for The Foxes of Harrow is that it’s better than its sequels.

But it’s no Gone With the Wind.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Immortal Wife is a lifeless figure

Jessie, the favorite daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, grows up working with her father, breathing politics, and believing it is America’s manifest destiny to rule from Atlantic to Pacific.


Immortal Wife: The Biographical Novel

of Jessie Benton Fremont by Irving Stone

Doubleday, 1944. 450 pages. 1945 bestseller # 10. My Grade: B-.


Jessie Benton Fremont wears hair in pompadour style with ringlets, has cameo on ribbon around her neck
Jessie Benton Fremont

At 16, Jessie falls in love with John Fremont, a military topographer ambitious to make a name for himself that would override the tinge of his illegitimate origins.

Jesse is determined to make her marriage stronger than either of them.

John leads four expeditions to map the unexplored frontier so settlers could move west to keep the Spanish and British from annexing the Pacific Coast. He wins the respect of people on the frontier – and the displeasure of politicians in Washington.

John’s career is a series of great exploits and monumental failures.

He makes and loses a fortune in gold mining.

He is defeated in the 1860 presidential race, even though he wins more votes than the winner.

Lincoln strips Fremont of his command in the early days of the Civil War.

After John dies, Jessie reflects that she never understood him.

Readers will feel that they don’t understand Jessie either.

Irving Stone makes the period history interesting, but he fails to make his heroine come alive.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Photo credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Outrageous man makes The Store worth revisiting

This is another of my occasional reviews of notable vintage novels that did not make the bestseller lists when they were published.  The Store won novelist T. S. Stribling a Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1933. A two-page illustrated biography of the author in pdf format is available from the Tennessee Literary Project.

Cotton Plant
Natural Cotton

Before the Civil War, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden was comfortably well off. Then he lost a year’s income when J. Handback declared bankruptcy the day Vaiden assigned him his cotton crop.

Vaiden’s fortunes haven’t recovered yet in 1884 when he learns Handback keeps a mistress, a former Vaiden slave named Gracie. Vaiden uses that knowledge to blackmail Handback into giving him a job in his store.

When Handback puts Vaiden in charge of the cotton bales, Vaiden sells them and pockets the proceeds, which he insists Handback owes him.

Though forced to return part of the money, Vaiden has enough to start his own store, invest in property, and think of himself as a Southern planter again.

Vaiden doesn’t realize the South’s future lies with shopkeepers not planters.  And he certainly doesn’t see that children of former slaves like Gracie’s son, Touissant, are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Although T. S. Stribling hangs his hangs together on a string of coincidences, they are plausible coincidences. Even Vaiden’s descent into crime is more happenstance than choice.

But interesting as the historical portrait is, it can’t compete with the fascination of Vaiden himself. He is, as his one-time fiancée says, “an outrageous man” who “stick[s] at nothing and regret[s] little.”

Miltiades Vaiden doesn’t just invent his own facts; he believes every word he fabricates.

Look for The Store.

You won’t begrudge the time you spend there.

The Store
by T[homas] S[igismund] Stribling
Original publication 1932 by Doubleday, Doran
Republished 1985 by The University of Alabama Press
with an introduction by Randy K. Cross
571 pages

Photo credit: Natural Cotton 22 by robertz65

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

So Red the Rose Gives Back Home View of War

Thorns on a rose bush
Roses have thorns

So Red the Rose is a Civil War novel on which that label seems misplaced.

Stark Young looks at the war from the perspective of the people who stayed home. Instead of sweeping battle scenes, readers see women sweeping carpets, trying to keep their families and traditions alive.

Young writes the story as a series of scenes in the lives of the residents of two plantations along the Mississippi, Portobello and Montrose.  They learn about events from newspapers, letters, and gossip from someone whose cousin knew someone who was there.

You won’t catch these people crying in public.

It’s just not done.

When their homes are looted, their livelihood destroyed, their lovers and sons killed, their traditional courtesy requires the Southerners to sustain a semblance of normal life: To give in to misery would make others uncomfortable.

The novel is not a consecutive narrative. To understand what’s happening, readers have to imagine each scene, much as they would if they were reading a play.

Although So Red the Rose demands a lot from readers, it gives a unique perspective on ordinary life in a country at war.

So Red the Rose
By Stark Young
Charles Scribner’s’ Sons
431 pages
1934 bestseller # 3
My Grade: B+

Photo credit: Thorns by kriegs

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Lamb in His Bosom Is Warm in Hard Times

lambCaroline Miller’s Lamb in His Bosom is a tale of women in the Georgia-Florida woods country in the 1800s when time was measured in tombstones.  These women endured incredible hardship to raise families.

Cean Carver is a pretty 16-year-old when she marries Lonzo Smith and moves to the farm he’s clearing for the family they are to raise.

While Lonzo goes to plant, Cean cares for the cabin, garden and animals before gladly joining him under the baking sun. They are poor, but Cean feels herself rich.

Children are born.

Before the first son, a series of girls, worthless as farm laborers, are born. Cean ages by years with every birth.

When Lonzo dies, Cean is left with 14 children to raise.

She marries a preacher newly come to the settlement. Cean hasn’t gotten used to her new name when her husband goes off to minister to soldiers in blue and gray. When he limps home after Appomattox, they are both white-haired and old.

Miller’s novel leaves a lasting impression of wiry women made indomitable by faith. In ordinary times, their faith is as unconsidered as breathing. In trouble, they “throw . . . back into God’s eternal face” His promise to never forsake them.

They are lambs in His bosom.

Lamb in His Bosom
By Caroline Miller
Grosset & Dunlap, 1933
345 pages
1932 bestseller #2
My grade B+

Photo credit: Lamb by magdaro

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Benton’s Row Is Uneven and Unoriginal

If I were asked whether Frank Yerby’s Benton’s Row is

a) a typical Yerby novel
b) better than the typical Yerby novel
c) worse than the typical Yerby novel
d) all of the above

I’d choose D.

Benton’s Row is in three parts. The first is standard Yerby: Tom Benton, an ambitious poor boy, irresistible to women, achieves fame and fortune in America’s South before the Civil War.

Part two, set during during Reconstruction, focuses on Tom’s widow, Sarah, remarried to the local doctor, and the extended family of Tom Benton’s legitimate and bastard children.

Yerby, who usually uses paper dolls for his female characters, does a surprisingly good job portraying Sarah.

In this middle section, Yerby also surprises with his depiction of plantations of the interior South as an unpainted log homes and the planters as not substantially better off financially than their slaves.

Unfortunately, Yerby destroys the impact of his original elements by ending the middle section with an incident distressingly similar to a scene from Zane Grey’s  To the Last Man.

The third part of Benton’s Row is a hodgepodge of stories about Tom Benton’s progeny and grandchildren during and after World War I. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who — and even harder to care.

Benton’s Row
by Frank Yerby
Dial Press, 1954
280 pages
1954 bestseller #10
My grade: C-

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni