Caribbean (a Michener novel)

island scene in center of dust jacketJames A. Michener’s novelistic style is as distinctive as a fingerprint.

In Caribbean, the Michener imprint is unusually sunny considering how bleak much of Caribbean history is.

The first chapter ends with cannibals eating a tribe they despise for playing ballgames instead of making war.

That sets the stage for centuries of conflicts both among those who live around the Caribbean Sea and between nations far away who prefer to fight their wars far from home. (More civilized, don’t ya’ know.)

Famous names like Columbus and Sir Francis Drake appear, along with a host of less familiar Caribbean heroes and villains.

The chapters of Caribbean read almost like short stories, which makes the hefty novel very accessible.

drawing of sugar processing plant
Sugar plantation

Two intertwined themes run through all the stories: Race relations and economic survival.

From the appearance of white explorers to Michener’s day, the Western belief in white superiority prevented darker skinned individuals from participating in a significant way in the islands’ economies.

The exodus of the most talented among them has left the islands at the mercy of the North American tourist trade.

The novel is worth reading as a novel and equally worth reading as a discussion of economic and political realities that are still impacting the United States.

Caribbean by James A. Michener
Cartography by Jean Paul Tremblay
Illustrations by Franca Nucci Haynes
Random House. ©1989. 672 p.
1989 bestseller #5 my grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Moneychangers gives good value

If you’ve read Hotel, Airport, or Wheels, you’ll be familiar with Arthur Hailey’s technique of merging a fictional story with exposition of how large organization works.

The O in the word Moneychangers holds a man in in front of a bank vault.
The Moneychangers is about who gets access to a bank vaults.

The Moneychangers applies that formula to the operation of a big bank but, since banks have changed less since the mid-20th century than airports or the auto industry, Moneychangers has more contemporary feel.

The story opens opens with Alex Vandervoort and Roscoe Heyward competing for the presidency of First Mercantile American Bank.

The two men have very different assessments of what banks should do. For Roscoe, it’s all about shareholder profits; for Alex it’s about making reasonable profit while serving communities.

Split evenly between the candidates, the bank board puts one of its members in the presidency, leaving Alex and Roscoe as vice presidents.

Hailey does his usual thorough job explaining banking operations while telling a story. And he keeps the subplots exciting and relevant.

The leading characters are each well-developed, individually interesting. They argue about the future of banking, including about how long it will be before the American economy collapses under its weight of debt, and about ethics.

And they make the arguments matter.

Thus, The Moneychangers manages to be both easy reading and valuable reading.

The Moneychangers by Arthur Hailey
Doubleday [1975] 436 p.
1975 bestseller #2. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Poor Wise Man makes romantic thriller from 1920’s economic upheaval

Mary Roberts Rinehart, noted for her mysteries, hit the bestseller list in 1921 with a romantic thriller. A Poor Wise Man is an exciting read that still leaves readers with plenty to think about.

Lily Cardew, heir to the Cardew steel fortune, is home after a year of war work in Ohio. Labor trouble is brewing at the Cardew mill.

Trouble is also brewing at home, where years of resentments between Lily’s parents and her grandfather are heating up.

And Lily is impatient with the old social barriers, having made friends with the lower classes, represented by Willy Cameron, whose limp had kept him from World War I. Willy is one of the “plain men” who love their country, but fight for their homes.

When Lily decides to visit her Aunt Elinor, who is married to an anarchist, she draws the disapproval of her household.

At the Doyle’s, Lily meets Louis Akers, an attorney and Red agent, running for city mayor. Akers “hated the rich because they had more than he had, but he scorned the poor because they had less.”

Willy Cameron is allied with the other major mayoral candidate, who is likely to lose to the nefarious Akers if Lily’s father stays in the race and splits the vote.

Rinehart applies all her plotting skills to weaving a complicated story embellished with fist fights, gun fights, street riots, and midnight chases on back roads.

The hero and heroine are a bit too pat, the romance a tad too predictable, but several minor characters are vividly real.

And the Rinehart’s picture of economic conditions after the first World War, based on historical facts, have an uncanny similarity to contemporary events, as these selected passages show:

 “The miners wanted to work a minimum day for a maximum wage, but the country must have coal. Shorter hours meant more men for the mines, and they would have to be imported. But labor resented the importation of foreign workers.”
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“The cry of the revolutionists, to all enough and to none too much, found a response not only in the anxious minds of honest workmen, but among an underpaid intelligentsia. . .Neither political party offered any relief; the old lines no longer held, and new lines of cleavage had come. Progressive Republicans and Democrats had united against reactionary members of both parties. There were no great leaders, no men of the hour.”
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Howard Cardew’s musings on the labor union movement:
“It was like representative government. It did not always represent. It, too, was founded on representation in good faith; but there was not always good faith. The union system was wrong. It was like politics. The few handled the many. The union, with its all-powerful leaders, was only another form of autocracy. It was Prussian. Yet the ideal behind the union was sound enough.”

A Poor Wise Man
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
Project Gutenberg E-Book #1970
My grade: B+
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Financial insight from vintage novels

Vintage novels can provide insights into contemporary events that are too big for us to understand as they happen.

In his 1936-bestselling novel White Banners, Lloyd C. Douglas ends his story as the Depression is starting.

Douglas has Lydia Edmunds ask her banker on Nov. 12, 1929 if the country’s financial condition is as bad as the papers had been reporting or if it is “just a Wall Street mishap.”

Douglas has the banker reply,

‘A Wall Street mishap, Mrs. Edmunds . . . is always an inconvenience to large numbers of people. . . . You see . . .  the whole country has been spending money that had no existence in fact. Wages have been good, credit has been easy. It has become a settled habit, with all sorts of people, to be pleased and contented with possessions on which they had paid a mere pitance. Almost nobody owned anything outright. Most of the nation’s business was done on paper. Everybody had his safety-deposit locker stuffed with pretty pictures of large sums of money. Now that the bottom has dropped out of this picture business, they’re all scared. Credit has suddenly closed up like a steel trap.’

Too bad President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson couldn’t explain our present financial situation with such clarity.

Douglas’s explanation of the cause of the Depression might just be the highpoint of White Banners.

Great reads with economic insights

Fortunately, other bestselling novels of the ’30s and ’40s do a vastly better job of providing entertainment while showing how economic conditions of the 1920s affected ordinary people. My recommendations are:

The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque (1931, #6)

Back Street by Fannie Hurst (1931, #8)

Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada (1933 #10)

Vein of Iron by Ellen Glasgow (1935 #2)

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939 #1)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943 # 4)

Each of these very different novels shows people struggling against economic conditions that they cannot control. Any one of them will tell you more about how national policy affects ordinary citizens than two weeks of televised Congressional hearings.