My picks of the 1918 bestsellers

I had no difficulty selecting my two two choices of the 1918 bestselling novels: Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter and The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Both novels have an anti-establishment and feminist edge. I suspect had they been written by newcomers to publishing instead of by highly successful authors noted for quite different sorts of  bestsellers—Rinehart is best known for her mysteries and Stratton-Porter for light romances—they might not have attracted a publisher at all.

For a third recommendation, I’ll add The Pawns Count, a mystery-thriller by E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Daughter of the Land

I admit I’m not a fan of Stratton-Porter.  She tends toward romances in which the leading character are too good to be true and the plots too contrived to be believable.  But she was popular: Michael O’Halloran, The Keeper of the Bees, Laddie, The Harvester, and Her Father’s Daughter each were bestsellers.

In Daughter of the Land Stratton-Porter breaks from her usual pattern.

Kate Bates, the daughter, is not breathtakingly beautiful nor is in thrall to a male figure. She’s smart, shrewd, hardworking, and she knows exactly what she wants: Kate wants to be given the same opportunities as her brothers. Each of them got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.

The best Kate could hope for was what her nine sisters got on their marriages: “a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress.”

Unwilling to settle for anything less than 200 acres to farm, Kate strikes out on her own to seek her fortune from her only marketable assets: her brain and her kindness.

Stratton-Porter has Kate make a lot of mistakes and learn from each one of them. Some of her mistakes are deliberate acts of will. Many, however, are thoughtless choices she makes under physical and emotional stress—an unheroic type of mistake rarely made by leading characters in novels.

Not everyone likes Kate, but people respect her. They know she won’t lie to them; she won’t take advantage of them. Even her brothers accept that Kate’s method of settling their parents’ estate is fair to everyone.

Daughter of the Land is not great literature, but it’s a great story from which teenage girls and their parents today could learn a great deal—and enjoy the experience.

The Amazing Interlude

Like Stratton-Porter,  Rinehart was a prolific writer and for four decades a  popular one. A mystery, The Man in Lower Ten (1909), was Rinehart’s first bestseller. It’s probably still her most popular novel.

Rinehart followed that the next year with two more bestselling mysteries, The Window at the White Cat and When a Man Marries, which mingles comedy with mystery. By the time she published  K in 1915  her name had become firmly associated mysteries.

The Amazing Interlude was Rinehart’s first bestselling novel outside the mystery genre.

As she does in most of her books, Rinehart sets Interlude in settings that her readers would have recognized: small town America and the Western Front. The story is about a seemingly very ordinary young woman engaged to be married to a man she’s known all her life.  Sara recognizes that Harvey is dull and boring, but he’s the sort of man girls in her town marry.

When a letter describing the horrible conditions behind the front lines in Belgium is passed around town, Sara’s sympathy and imagination are stirred. She goes off to France to run a soup kitchen for soldiers.

Sara knows no French, has no foreign contacts, has no credentials, and she has no financial support other than from women of her church. Sara rises above her limitations, doing all sorts of things she would never have dreamed anyone could do, let alone herself.

While Sara scrubs floors and scrounges for food while shells explode around her, Harvey fumes because he thinks she’s playing instead of doing the accepted thing: staying at home tending to his wants.

Harvey gets the church women who funded Sara’s soup kitchen to quit sending her money to feed French soldiers. Without funds, Sara has to come home.

Rinehart makes readers understand that Interlude‘s Americans are not deliberately cruel or mean. They aren’t lacking in charity—as long as charity can be delivered by check from profits made doing activities one enjoys. It’s only when the enjoyment lags and the profits dwindle, or if the situation demands boring, dirty work, that compassion fatigue sets in.

Getting outside the security of her home, family, and town leads Sara to believe that being American means befriending people outside one’s home, family, and town; people who speak foreign languages, wear different clothes, have different religions; people who are dirty, smelly, lousy, contagious.

Sara comes home a changed person. Her idea of the world and America’s role in the world has changed forever.

The Amazing Interlude may find few enthusiasts in America’s current build-a-wall culture, but it’s all the more important reading for that.

The Pawns Count

E. Phillips Oppenheim was another popular and prolific author:  He turned out more than 100 novels. Oppenheim is best known for his thrillers, such as The Pawns Count.

Unlike my other two picks, Pawns’ is genre fiction whose continuing interest today beyond its entertainment value—it’s a good World War I-era thriller—is the insights it provides into how the war to end all wars laid the groundwork for World War II.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Sexy WWI female spy proves The Pawns Count

The Pawns Count is a can’t-put-down thriller about a female spy in the tense days when Germany and England were fighting trench-to-trench in France.

E. Phillips Oppenheim clothes characters from the era’s pop fiction with individual personalities and immerses them in detail his readers would have heard shouted by paperboys in London and New York.


The Pawns Count by E. Phillips Oppenheim

1918 bestseller #8. Project Gutenberg ebook #9836. My grade: B+.


Pamela VanTeyl is lunching with a British officer in a London restaurant when another guest, an explosives inventor, goes to wash his hands, and disappears.

When Pamela visits two of the restaurant’s employees that afternoon, readers learn that she’s much more than a rich, sexy, American socialite.

Pamela is actively pursued by German-American Oscar Fischer, a man her equal in brains and fortune. As long as America stays out of the war, Fischer is for Germany first, America second.

Pamela also pursued by John Lutchester, a lightly-wounded British officer doing desk duty in the Ministry of Munitions.

Before the novel ends, the intrigue has reached to the highest levels of government in four nations.

Oppenheim’s novel is more than a pleasant pass time: It gives a window into American attitudes toward Europe and the Great War, and lays the historical groundwork for the next war two decades later.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Recommended 1920, 1929 bestsellers

Since I just recently reviewed a few of the bestsellers of 1920 and 1929 I missed when their anniversary years came up in my schedule, I’ll update my picks for the best of the lists now.

None from the 1920 bestsellers

There are really no titles among the 1920 bestsellers that are more than just mildly interesting today. The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim kept my attention while I was reading it, but aside from recalling that it’s about two men that exchange identities I can’t recall anything about it now.

I can recall a few impressions about others novels on the 1920 list, but none that calls me to reread them. You can check out the entire list on the bestsellers list page.

The 1929 list is another kettle of fish entirely.

Three durable novels from the 1929 list

Cover of All Quiet on the Western Front shows young German soldierThe top selling novel of 1929,  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, is still a powerful novel that deserves to be reread. And it’s still timely as the western world commemorates the 1914-1918 war that was to end all wars.

The story about German soldiers who left the schoolroom for the trenches draws on Remarque’s own experiences.

Before the war, he had been training to be a teacher. He was conscripted and fought for Germany on the Western Front, where he received shrapnel wounds that confined him to a hospital until the war ended.

His novel shows how the war changed schoolboys into soldiers, hardening them, but not quite destroying their sensitivity.

Although none of the other nine titles comes close to being as good as All Quiet, several are better than average.

Inside cover of Scarlet Sister Mary
Inside cover of Scarlet Sister Mary

Scarlet Sister Mary by Julie Peterkin is the second of my top picks for the year. It explores the experience of a proud, Southern black woman who by her early 30s has five children by five different fathers and two grandchildren to raise on her own.

Although the novel is set on a plantation just after the end of the Civil War, the story is not about race relations but about interpersonal relationships. That alone makes it worthy of rereading today.

Mary’s promiscuity makes her unwelcome in the church that called her  “Sister Mary” when she was a teen and there is no other support system she can call on as she sees herself growing old.

cover of Dark Hester is dark blueMy third choice from the 1929 list is Dark Hester by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. It is the story of a mother who has built her entire life around her son.

Monica can barely stand her daughter-in-law. Hester ruined all the plans she had for a happy life as the center of her son’s universe.  Monica thinks, “No one cared if old hearts break.”

The principal characters tip-toe around their distrust and resentment until events conspire to bring mother and daughter-in-law to a confrontation.

Despite its creakily concocted plot, Dark Hester has an air of reality. There’s no happy ending, only a slightly-less-unhappy-than-expected one.

And that is realistic.

Great Impersonation Is Great Mystery

Photo of Kaiser Wilhelm
Kaiser Wilhelm photo from The Library of Congress

The Great Impersonation is a mystery set in duplicity and compounded by international espionage.

In German West Africa around 1910, Everard Dominey, a gone-to-seed Englishman whose only asset is fluent German, runs into a school mate, now a German commander. The two had always looked remarkably alike.

Von Ragastein has been exiled by the Kaiser for killing his lover’s husband. Dominey is self-exiled after a fight that left his wife unbalanced, threatening to kill him, and the defeated opponent missing, believed murdered.

Von Ragastein decides to kill Dominey and assume his identify.

Shortly thereafter, a man calling himself Everard Dominey arrives in England. He’s rich, abstemious, and highly principled—a miraculously changed man.

This new Dominey takes up life as an English lord. Only a German-born colleague knows Dominey is being planted to provide political intelligence when Germany attacks England.

The plot quickly gets complicated as Dominey is recognized by his former lover while Lady Dominey refuses to recognize him as her husband.

The story gets increasingly murky as Dominey gets involved in the  discussions about whether the German pre-1914 military build-up means England should prepare for war.

Despite the corny look-alike plot hook, E. Phillips Oppenheim pulls off a clever and sophisticated mystery that will keep readers intrigued to the last page.

The Great Impersonation
by E. Phillips Oppenheim
1920 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook #1484
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Project Gutenberg

Musings on the 1918 bestseller list

Older of the bestsellers are increasingly hard to find. When I do find them, the pages are yellow and brittle.

Publishers are reissuing many of the older books as their copyrights expire and the move into public domain. I’d rather read the books first, though, and then buy those I want to read more than once.

I’ve recently discovered that Milne Library at the SUNY College at Oneonta has a superb collection of vintage fiction, some of which is in the regular circulating collection. The library staff and student assistants are wonderful. They even helped me get a long term parking permit so I didn’t have to get a permit on every visit.

According to my posting scheme, I should begin  posting the reviews for 1918’s bestsellers this week.  These novels are . . . .

  1. The U.P. Trail by Zane Grey
  2. The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair
  3. The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart
  4. Dere Mable by Edward Streeter
  5. Oh, Money! Money! by Eleanor H. Porter
  6. Greatheart by Ethel M. Dell
  7. The Major by Ralph Connor
  8. The Pawns Court by E. Phillips Oppenheim
  9. A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter
  10. Sonia by Stephen McKenna

Several of these authors were incredibly prolific and popular in their day. E. Phillips Oppenheim, who I’d never heard of, published over 150 books and is credited by some with originating the thriller.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was no slouch either. She wrote over 60 popular mysteries and originated the phrase “the butler did it”.

Zane Grey also has 60 novels on his resume and an organization devoted to keeping his work alive.

Ethel M. Dell, another author unfamiliar to me,  appears to have knocked out a novel a year from 1911 to 1939.

Despite their incredible output, I have located only a few of these authors’ books.

Of course, not all the 1918’s bestselling novelists were so prolific.

Ralph Connor, who wrote just 11 novels and two volumes of short stories, was a full-time Presbyterian minister. Edward Streeter produced a similarly small volume of novels in his spare time. His day job was vice president of Fifth Avenue Bank, which later became Bank of New York.

Gene Stratton-Porter, who I thought was just a novelist, was actually a naturalist, wildlife photographer, and one of the first women to start a motion picture studio. The state of Indiana now operates two of her homes, Wildflower Woods and Limberlost, as state historic sites.

When I run out of reviews of bestsellers, I’ll fill out the year with reviews of some classics that didn’t make the bestseller list. Stay tuned.