My 5 top picks of 1939’s top 10 novels

Of the top ten bestselling novels for 1939, five are still super reading today.

Two of the five are inside looks at the lives of the working poor.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings The Yearling tops my list of the 1939 bestsellers with the most value for today’s readers. Although the main character is a young boy, The Yearling is not just a kid’s book. If you’ve ever had to tell your son or daughter, “we can’t afford that,” you will see the Baxter’s situation through adult eyes.

John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath has to be on my list. Like The Yearling, it looks at the lives of the working poor. Unlike the Baxters to stay on land nobody wants, the Joads are kicked off their farm and become migrant workers. Steinbeck uses his novel as a soapbox,

Two other books from 1939 that have held up well are thrillers: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ethel Vance’s EscapeRebecca totters on the brink of being a chick-lit novel. There’s nothing feminine about Escape.  Mark Ritter’s attempt to smuggle his mother out of a prison camp is in the best tradition of war novels.

My final top pic, Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley, is a romance as seen through the eyes of a woman who cannot afford to endulge in romance.  Kitty wisecracks her way through the loss of both parents, an unwanted pregnancy, the depression. She’s one tough cookie with a tender heart.

Whatever your mood, one of these novels should provide suitable entertainment.

Escape Is Impossible to Put Down

In the opening scene of Escape, a doctor tells actress Emmy Ritter she’ll be able to walk in a week.

“Just in time for my execution,” she replies.

Ethel Vance  hooked me with that line, and she didn’t let go until I’d read the rest of her novel that evening.

Authorities refuse to allow Emmy’s son, Mark, to see her.

However, the sympathetic doctor fakes Emmy’s death, falsifies the death certificate, and releases the body to Mark and the Ritter’s faithful servant, Fritz, telling them Emmy must be kept warm or she will die.

Keeping her warm in an unheated truck in winter is a problem. Mark pushes the problem on his only other local acquaintance, a Countess reduced to running an upscale girls’ boarding school.

Mark doesn’t know the Countess’ lover is the man responsible for catching escaped prisoners, so he doesn’t worry about the girls’ chatter. Readers, like me, will bite their nails.

Vance is masterful at sustaining suspense. But it’s not just the wonderful storytelling that kept my attention.

Vance also explores various facets of love, from sexual passion to filial love, to a longstanding employer-employee relationship. Under her careful scrutiny, no relationship is quite as simple as it appears on the surface.

By Ethel Vance
Little, Brown
428 pages
1939 bestseller # 5
My Grade: A-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni