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original "Good Woman" cover with author's dedicationEmma Downes is a good woman.

Deserted by her husband, she started a business, supported herself, raised their son, now a missionary in Africa, and became a force to be reckoned with in her church.


A Good Woman by Louis Bromfield
Frederick A. Stokes, 1927. 432 pp. 1927 bestseller #10. My grade: A.

When natives attack Phillip’s African mission, Phillip escapes, dragging his virgin wife back to the states with him.

Missionaries board steam locomotive in Congo about 1900.

Phillip and Naomi left Africa after their mission was attacked.

Naomi would have preferred martyrdom, but Phillip has lost faith in his mother’s God and in his missionary calling.

Back home, Phillip takes a laborer’s job in the mills while his mother tries to put a good face on things — tough work, especially when her husband shows up after a 26 year absence.

Louis Bromfield builds his complex plot from the story’s setting and the personalities of his characters.

Bromfield draws Emma with deft strokes. She has guts, stamina, business acumen, determination, but she’s also manipulative, controlling, and self-deluded.

Emma’s religion is “ a practical, businesslike instrument of success,” her God conveniently pocket-sized, but Emma doesn’t know that.

Some of the incidents are shocking, but not unbelievable. The superficial way Bromfield relates horrific events powerfully suggests they are too awful to be spoken of.

Emma hasn’t a clue what Christianity is all about. Her cluelessness makes this book important — and vastly entertaining—90 years after its initial publication.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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All too often, writers of “religious novels” write romances with religion sprinkled on top.

Bars of Iron flips that fraud, presenting a religious novel in the guise of a romance.

prison corridor with iron barred doors, overprinted with poem about freeing prisoners


Bars of Iron by Ethel M. Dell

1916 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg ebook #10509. My Grade: B-.


Avery Denys, a widow recently come to be a mother’s helper at the vicarage, stops Piers Evesham from beating his dog by dumping ice water on both.

For Piers, 25, grandson and heir to the irascible Sir Beverly Evesham, it’s love at first sight.

Four years older, Avery “left romance behind her” when she returned from Australia.

Her drunken husband was killed in a Queensland brawl, leaving her with an infant who lived only six months.

Piers shares Avery’s love for children. That brings the pair together—and into conflict with the vicar, whose cloth poorly conceals a sadistic temperament, and with Sir Beverly who hates women, particularly women fortune-hunters.

Ethel M. Dell moves the story so fluidly that her borrowings from the 100 most-used plots of the 19th century are hardly noticeable.

She also gives a multifaceted picture of religion, rare even in religious novels.

Where Dell falls notably short is in providing no reason for Piers’ murderous rages.

Even if no logical reason exists, novel readers demand some explanation—beyond man’s sinful nature—for premeditated murder.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Tell No Man is the story of a rising young stockbroker involved in a passionate affair with a sexy socialite to whom he’s been married several years.

Service in Korea shook Hank Garvin badly. When a long-time friend commits suicide, Hank’s foundation gives way.


 

Tell No Man by Adela Rogers St. Johns

Doubleday, 1966. 444 pages. 1966 bestseller #7. My grade: A.


1966-07_tellnomanShortly thereafter, Hank has a Damascus Road experience.

Like Paul, Hank’s ready to chuck everything to follow Jesus, believing he will do the same works Jesus did.

Mellie, Hank’s atheist wife, is ready to chuck Hank if he persists in going into the ministry.

Hank is convinced Mellie will stick with him.

She does, but soon realizes she “didn’t come first with Hank any more. God came first.”

That changes their marriage.

Adela Rogers St. Johns chose Mellie’s godmother, a Bible-reading Catholic and veteran Chicago newspaper reporter, to tell the story.  Her credentials give the narration authority: She is well-placed to know, to see, to speak truth.

I rarely find religious novels inspiring. This one is not just inspiring but inspiring in practical ways.

The events that lead up to the story’s climax will be familiar to anyone who’s read religious novels.

The climax, itself, however, is both a logical outgrowth of St. Johns’ plot line — and an absolutely stunning surprise.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Garden of Allah begins with the arrival in North Africa of  an  Englishwoman headed to Beni-Mora.

Robert Hichens makes the vast, unpopulated Sahara a vivid backdrop flooded with colors and  vibrating with tom-toms, cymbals, castanets, and the howls of dogs for a story as unexpected as the scene.


The Garden of Allah by Robert Hichens

Grosset & Dunlap, 1904. 1905 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook #3637   My grade: A.


Domini Enfilden’s father, an English Lord, has recently died leaving her at 32 single, wealthy, and spiritually shaken by the collapse of her parents’ marriage and their Catholicism.

Domini hopes to find herself in the solitude of the desert, the vast empty space the Arabs call “The Garden of Allah.”

What she finds immediately is an annoying man said to be English, who is barely civil, and seems repelled by religion of every sort.

Aside from Count Anteoni, an Italian who is Arab in all but his failure to adopt Islam, the pair are the only Europeans in Beni-Mora.

The story is riveting.

Domini’s thoughts and mental corrections, her mood swings, her snobbery and charity all are perfectly believable.

Robert Hichens fascinates readers as he does Domini with the mysterious behavior of the man whose name they eventually learn is Boris Androvsky.

Then Hichens pulls readers into biggest mystery of all: the mystery of God’s love and forgiveness.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In One Increasing Purpose, A. S. M. Hutchinson presents a nice guy, Simon “Sim” Paris, who survived World War I without a scratch.

Sim  wonders why he was spared.


One Increasing Purpose by A. S. M. Hutchinson

Little, Brown,and Company, 1925,  448 pp. 1925 bestseller #10. My grade: C+.


All his family call on Sim’s sympathy.

Andrew, Sim’s oldest brother, is married to a woman temperamentally her husband’s opposite; after 10 years of marriage they are finding passion a poor substitute for shared values.

Sim’s other brother, Charles, is fond of his wife and she of him, but their relationship ends with fondness.

Looking for a sympathetic ear for his own problems, Sims looks up girl he’d known before the war. When Sim tell Elizabeth he’s convinced he was spared for a purpose, she says the purpose “is of God.”

Sim spends the rest of the novel trying to find God’s purpose, while simultaneously trying to help his brothers and sisters-in-laws with their marital problems.

Sims is the sort of person you’d want as a friend, but he’s awfully dull as a male lead. Sim’s declaration of undying love is, “Elizabeth,” which is not a particularly memorable line.

To get the mess untangled, Hutchinson resorts to a deus ex machina, which perhaps is appropriate for a protagonist whose statement of faith is “Christ the Common Denominator.”

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Some novels cross genres.

Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination tangles them.


Heaven’s My Destination by Thornton Wilder

Harper & Row, 1934. 304 pages. 1935 bestseller #7. My grade: B+.


Cover of "Heaven's My Destination" calls it as a famous novel by Thornton WilderThe book is a funny, coming-of-age, religious novel.

Handsome, young George Marvin Brush, a traveling textbook salesman, is the novel’s ridiculous central character.

George didn’t put himself “through college for four years and go through a difficult religious conversion in order to have ideas like other people’s.”

One of George’s ideas is to found “an American home,” which at 23 he has not yet been able to do.

He’s looking for the farmer’s daughter he comforted in a barn one night at age 22, which made him “her husband until she or I dies.”

Since that night, George hasn’t been able to find the farm or the girl.

Her name might have been Roberta.

Or Bertha.

Wilder’s story romps along Tristram Shandy-style as George stumbles along making enemies by trying to live up to his principles.

The story is saved from farce by George’s shout, “Can’t you see that you don’t know anything about religion until you start to live it?”

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Canadian military chaplain Canon Frederick George Scott

Canadian military chaplain Canon Frederick George Scott

The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land begins like a romance for religious spinsters, but within 20 pages, the handsome missionary Barry Dunbar turns out to be asthmatic, pedantic, and tactless.

When war breaks out, Barry, a Canadian, tries to enlist. He is rejected on medical grounds, but his father is accepted.

Barry reluctantly accepts a chaplaincy and attempts to enforce godliness among the troops.

On the eve of his arrival in France, an elderly Anglican chaplain sets him straight: “My dear fellow, remember they are far from home. These boys need their mothers… And, my boy, they need God. And they need you.”

Those words change Barry’s attitude.

Later as Barry watches while his father, both arms blown off, die of his injuries, he learns personally what it means to be alone far from home.

Ralph Connor’s descriptions of trench warfare are horrific. Oddly, the descriptions of the sleep deprivation, loneliness, and submerging of their own needs that Barry and other non-combatants endure are even more painful.

Despite some implausible elements — the medically unfit Barry remains healthy, for example—Connor spins an unforgettable yarn about men and women who picked up the pieces of those who went over the top.

Though Connor’s story is fiction, the war’s horrors are not. In The Official History of The Canadian Forces in The Great War 1914-1919, Vol. 1, A. Fortescue Duguid writes: 

Carrying out their spiritual duties the Chaplains were to be found both in the field and at the dressing stations giving comfort to the dying. Major (Canon) F. G. Scott on the evening of the 22nd encouraged an advancing battalion with the words “A great day for Canada, boys—great day for Canada,” and he was in their midst when they charged the wood.

The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land
By Ralph Connor
1919 bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg e-book#3288
My grade: B
 

Photo of Military Chaplain  (and noted Canadian poet) F. G.  Scott is from the George Metcalf Archival Collection  of the Canadian War Museum.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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