My picks of 1924: So Big, So Driven, So French, So Misplaced

Of the 10 novels that were bestsellers in 1924, four stand out for providing far more than just an entertaining story: So Big by Edna Ferber, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher], The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, and The Midlander  by Booth Tarkington.

Cover of So Big by Edna FerberAlthough the stories are very different, each explores obstacles that make understanding another person’s perspective difficult.

In Edna Ferber’s So Big, Selina Peake rejects her father’s philosophy that life is “just so much velvet” worth experiencing regardless of how good or bad it appears at the time.

Late in life Selina comes to regret teaching her son the only things worth having in life are earned through hard work. Dirk reaches mid-life without having enjoyed living.

In The Midlander (which became National Avenue when Booth Tarkington put it in his single-volume trilogy Growth in 1927), Dan Oliphant never varies from the real estate career he chose almost at random in his early twenties.

Dan is so sure that his housing development will be a success, he lets every personal relationship shrivel while he puts all his effort into the Ornaby Addition.
Spine of Anne Douglas Sedgwick novel The Little French Girl
Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s The Little French Girl is the only one of my quarter of favorites not set in America. Alix Vervier’s mother has decided her 15-year-old daughter will marry within the family of an English war-time acquaintance. Mme Vervier ships Alex across the cultural solar system from France to England.

Alix must mature enough to regard her mother with sufficient dispassion that she can determine what of her mother’s behavior is motivated by love and what is motivated by self-interest.

In The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield [Fisher] shows Eva and Lester Knapp trapped in roles they both hate. By accident, Lester becomes the stay-at-home mom and Eva becomes the wage earner.

There’s no doubt everyone in the household is financially and emotionally better off as a result of the switch. It is also clear, however, that those gains come at a significant moral cost that the family may regret in the future.

Cover of The Home-MakerEach of these insightful novels is worth reading. So Big and The Home-Maker are written in very accessible styles. The Midlander requires a bit more mental work, but it’s not difficult reading.

To understand what’s happening in The Little French Girl demands full concentration and either a French dictionary or a reading knowledge of French. Readers who give it a chance will find it worth the effort.

The Home-Maker Ahead of Its Time and Possibly of Ours

Cover of The Home-Maker by Dorothy CanfieldAs Dorothy Canfield’s novel The Home-Maker opens, Eva Knapp is scrubbing the kitchen floor, seething at the price of cleaning powder and the ingratitude of her family for not appreciating  her hard work.

Eva’s hatred of housework is making her and her whole family physically and emotionally ill.

Lester Knapp hates his department store bookkeeping job as much as Eva hates being home.

When Lester loses first his job and then the use of his legs, Eva uses her store experience and knowledge of people to get a sales position at the store which had fired Lester.

Lester becomes the home-maker, relishing time with the three children as much as Eva hated it. He realizes, “There was no sacrifice in the world which [Eva] would not joyfully make for her children except to live with them.”

That a man could be more nurturing than a woman is startling for 1924, and the descriptions of each parent interacts with each child are extraordinary.

Despite its unethical ending, which I’ll leave readers to discover, The Home-Maker ranks with  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on my must-read list for parents, teachers and concerned neighbors.

The Home-Maker
By Dorothy Canfield [Fisher]
NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1924
320 pages
1924 bestseller #10
My grade: A

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Brimming Cup is a heady treat

In 1909, a couple on the Rocca di Papa pledged their love. Eleven years later, as the woman sends her youngest child off to school, Marise Crittenden thinks, “This is the beginning of the end.”

Marise is a talented pianist living in a tiny New England town. When  Mr. Wells, a retired office manager moves in next door, accompanied by the son of his late employer, Marise is drawn to both men for different reasons. Neale Crittenden is away on business when the newcomers arrive, so it falls to Marise to introduce them to the Ashley community.

With this honest, self-effacing ways, Mr. Wells becomes Marise’s  friend and her preteen son’s confidant. With his charm and sophistication, handsome young Vincent Marsh becomes her tempter.

Vincent says children are better raised by strangers, that Marise has a duty to cultivate her musical talent, that her marriage is valueless because its passion has worn off.

A chance comment leads Marise to fear Neale might be underhanded. If that is true, she might as well leave with Vincent.

The Brimming Cup is a novel to savor. Dorothy Canfield’s characters are distinctive individuals portrayed with watercolor subtlety. She makes her intricate plot look straightforward.

The Brimming Cup
By Dorothy Canfield [Fisher]
Harcourt, Brace, 1921
409 pages
1921 bestseller # 2
Project Gutenberg Ebook-No: 14957
My Grade: A-
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni