Doomsday: Heritage and modernity at war and in love

Ex-soldier Arnold Furze has spent five years trying to bring Doomsday, a hillside farm, back to productivity.

Arnold falls for the pretty daughter of one of his milk customers in the cheap residential development below his farm.


Doomsday by Warwick Deeping
Alfred A Knopf, 1927, 367 pp. 1927Bestseller #3 My grade B+.

photo of dairy farm, 1921

Mary Viner is impressed by the sexy farmer, but turned off at the thought of being a farmer’s wife.

Mary debunks, heads for bright lights. Within a few months, she marries a wealthy financier with the personality of a fence post.

Arnold marries a farmer’s daughter. Their happy marriage is ended by a speeding automobile.

When Mary’s husband commits suicide over his financial failures, she returns to her late parents’ home.

In a standard romance, widow and widower would find each other again and live happily every after, but Warwick Deeping is no standard romance novelist.

Arnold and Mary both have a lot of maturing to do before either can think of happiness.

Deeping’s novel takes its name from the 1086 record of English land holdings called the Domesday, or Doomsday, book. The land is central to the novel.

Arnold and Mary, respectively, represent the war between enduring values and modernity. The split focus keeps Doomsday from being a great novel, but it doesn’t keep it from being fine entertainment.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Daughter of the Land is flawed, heroic feminist

Gene Stratton-Porter was not only a prolific author, but a prolific author of bestselling novels.

A Daughter of the Land is better than any of her others.


A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter

1918 bestseller #9. Project Gutenberg ebook #3722. My grade: B+.


The novel is about Kate Bates, youngest of 16 children of one of the richest, stingiest, and most egotistical farmers in the county.

Kate’s seven brothers each got a house, stock, and 200 acres when they turned 21.

The nine Bates girls each got “a bolt of muslin and a fairly decent dress when she married.”

Kate bitterly resents the disparity.

When her father refuses to let her take a summer course that would qualify her to teach, Kate borrows money from her sister-in-law and goes out on her own.

The novel follows Kate from Normal School training into teaching, courtship, marriage, motherhood, widowhood, and, eventually to love as she pursues her goals of “a man, a farm, and a family.”

Aside from one slip when she has Mr. Bates seeming to applaud Kate’s rebellion, Stratton-Porter tale of an heroic and flawed woman’s fight to run her own life—and a 200-acre farm—feels entirely true.

Kate makes plenty of mistakes along the way, but she accepts their consequences an moves on.

In my book, that’s heroic.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Now In November is beautiful and enduring

Now in November was Josephine Winslow Johnson’s first novel. Although it didn’t become a popular bestseller, critics showered praise on the book and its author. The year following its publication, the Pulitzer committee awarded Johnson its 1935 prize for best novel, a rare achievement for a writer’s first novel.


Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson ©1934 ©1962.


Cover of 1961 edition of Now in November shows women doing farm work.Arnold Haldemarne had done well in the lumber factories through persistent hard work. Suddenly, his peace and security vanished overnight, swallowed up in the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.

Haldemarne takes his wife and three daughters back to the mortgaged farm his family had owned since the Civil War.

The Haldemarne women, Willa and daughters Kerrin, Marget, and Merle, fall in love with the land.

But as the novel’s narrator, Marget, observes, her father doesn’t see the land’s beauty, and he “hadn’t the resignation a farmer has to have.”

The family suffers one misfortune after another until there are only Mr. Haldemarne and daughters Marget and Merle left.

Despite what sounds like novel built of gloom and misery, Now in November has a lyric quality that lifts the novel beyond the doldrums.

Johnson makes even the mad Kerrin and her gloomy father individuals deserving of both pity and respect.

Their gardens are dead, but the land is beautiful.

The Haldemarnes are driven far beyond endurance, yet they endure.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni


This is another in the GreatPenformances series of occasional reviews of notable novels. The cover shown above is from Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson,  afterward by Nancy Hoffman. The Feminist Press, 1991, 231 pp.

So Big, a Cameo for Motherhood

Jacket cover of So BigEdna Ferber’s So Big is a gentle, thoughtful novel peopled with believable characters and edged in tears.

Selina Peake grew up wherever her father’s profession—gambling—took them. Life was an adventure to her father. He told Selina to relax and enjoy it:

‘The more kinds of people you see, and the more things you do, and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living. Remember, no matter what happens, good or bad, its’ just so much’—he used the gambler’s term, unconsciously,—’just so much velvet.

When her father dies, Selina goes to teach at a rural school in a Dutch farming community. She causes merriment by saying the fields of cabbage are beautiful and consternation by her frivolous, city clothes.

Within a year, she marries a farmer with no talent for farming. They have one child, Dirk, whom Selina calls by his childhood nickname, “So Big.”

Widowed before Dirk is 10, Selina takes over running the farm, making it profitable so that Dirk won’t have to be a farmer.

She teaches Dirk life isn’t an adventure, that something good isn’t just around the corner. Dirk believes her, and at the time she believes she’s telling the truth.

Dirk does what’s necessary to becomes a success short of outright illegality.

Though Selina and Dirk remain close, as she grows older, Selina senses that she failed her son.

The Pulitzer committee agreed with readers that So Big is a gem.

Read it and find out for yourself.

So Big
By Edna Ferber
© 1924, Doubleday
1924 bestseller #1
283 pages
My grade: A

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Lamb in His Bosom Is Warm in Hard Times

lambCaroline Miller’s Lamb in His Bosom is a tale of women in the Georgia-Florida woods country in the 1800s when time was measured in tombstones.  These women endured incredible hardship to raise families.

Cean Carver is a pretty 16-year-old when she marries Lonzo Smith and moves to the farm he’s clearing for the family they are to raise.

While Lonzo goes to plant, Cean cares for the cabin, garden and animals before gladly joining him under the baking sun. They are poor, but Cean feels herself rich.

Children are born.

Before the first son, a series of girls, worthless as farm laborers, are born. Cean ages by years with every birth.

When Lonzo dies, Cean is left with 14 children to raise.

She marries a preacher newly come to the settlement. Cean hasn’t gotten used to her new name when her husband goes off to minister to soldiers in blue and gray. When he limps home after Appomattox, they are both white-haired and old.

Miller’s novel leaves a lasting impression of wiry women made indomitable by faith. In ordinary times, their faith is as unconsidered as breathing. In trouble, they “throw . . . back into God’s eternal face” His promise to never forsake them.

They are lambs in His bosom.

Lamb in His Bosom
By Caroline Miller
Grosset & Dunlap, 1933
345 pages
1932 bestseller #2
My grade B+

Photo credit: Lamb by magdaro

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Funny Literal Kids Make Laddie Sparkle

Laddie is the pride and joy of the Stanton family and hero to his youngest sister, who tells his story.

When Laddie asks Little Sister to deliver a letter to a Princess in the big wood, she discovers Laddie has fallen for a English lovely girl just moved to the neighborhood. Little Sister approves of the courtship, although her mother doesn’t.

Pamela Pryor’s family got off to a bad start with their God-fearing neighbors in the 1900s mid-west farming community. They think the English newcomers are heathen.

With Little Sister’s help, Laddie’s romance prospers and the Pryor family brought into the good graces of the community.

The plot is hackneyed and the main characters straight off the shelf, but the minor characters and minor incidents are jewels.

Although Gene Stratton-Porter imbues Little Sister with a child’s literal mind, no one would ever think the writing was by an elementary school child.

Nor is the story written for children. Stratton-Porter is talking to adults about how to live out Biblical principles in everything from showing hospitality to environmentally friendly farming practices.

Part romance, part morality play, Laddie escapes being saccharine because Little Sister and her older brother Leon are funny kids.

Laddie:  A True Blue Story
by Gene Stratton-Porter
Grosset & Dunlap, 1913
541 pages
1913 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook # 286
My Grade B-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

As the Earth Turns, it’s on axis of farm family

As The Earth Turns is a homely novel: a picture of a year in the life of a Maine farm family in the early years of the Great Depression.

The Shaws are a next-century version of the Ingalls and Wilder families profiled in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books: solid, hardworking, reliable.

Mark Shaw has farmed all his life; he doesn’t know or care to know any other place. His daughter Jen and three of his boys have a heart for farming. The others seek excitement off the land.

Since before her mother’s death ten years before Jen has run the house. She neither asks nor receives significant aid or interference from her father’s second wife.

Jen’s life is cooking, cleaning, and caring for others. She wants nothing else. She copes with life’s crises—a croupy baby or fatal accident—and the attentions of the handsome Polish immigrant farmer with equal calm.

Gladys Hasty Carroll relates the story with the dispassion of a visitor reading the family record scribbled on the calendar by the back door.

The Shaws would be great neighbors, but they aren’t particularly entertaining ones.

And reading about someone else doing housework is even less exciting than doing one’s own.

As the Earth Turns
by Gladys Hasty Carroll
MacMillan, 1933
339 pages
1933 bestseller #2

Good Earth Top Seller Second Year in Row

In 1932, Pearl S. Buck’s fictional portrait of a Chinese peasant whose backbreaking work and sacrifice made him wealthy took the number one bestseller spot for the second year running.  In an era when being a bestselling author meant more than selling 79 copies of a 99¢ ebook, being top of the bestseller list two years in a row was a true achievement.

In addition to winning  popular acclaim, The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932. A half-dozen years later, The Good Earth was influential in winning Buck the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature although by that time she had already published the other two novels in the trilogy she began with The Good EarthSons in 1932 and A House Divided in 1935.  (Look for a review of Sons here at GreatPenformances in June.)

Today The Good Earth is probably more highly regarded by critics than by readers. Contemporary readers are less interested in farmers than in the murder and mayhem found in some of Buck’s less-well-known novels, like Dragon Seed,

Nonetheless, the novel is still good reading, and remarkably easy reading for such an acclaimed literary success.

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A White Bird Flying Lets Your Spirits Soar

A White Bird Flying is formulaic, predictable, and utterly enchanting.

Laura Deal is a sweet girl, but odd. A keen observer of life in Cedartown, Nebraska, she’s too young and innocent to understand much of what she sees. Readers more mature than Laura draw their own conclusions.

After the death of her grandmother, who encouraged her literary ambitions, Laura vows never to marry but to devote herself to writing.

Laura  lives so much in her imaginary worlds that she doesn’t know her own mind. When her friendship for Allen Rinemiller deepens into love, Laura sticks to her vow, choosing to be a spinster writer and heir to her wealthy aunt’s and uncle’s fortune.

Predictably, Laura comes to her senses, marries Allen, and becomes a farm wife just as her grandmother was.

Bess Streeter Aldrich plots the novel well; her characters are distinctive, quirky, and thoroughly human. Her musings on marriage, aging, and cultural change are warm and perceptive.

Though Aldrich does everything right, she lacks the talent to make her novel great; however, I don’t think you’ll mind too much. Laura is a sweetheart and there’s enough food for thought to almost make up for the novel’s failings.

A White Bird Flying
By Bess Streeter Aldrich
D. Appleton, 1931
336 pages
1931 bestseller # 3
My grade B
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Good Earth Gives Easy Access to Dying Chinese Culture

The Good Earth follows a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung, from his wedding day to his death.

Novelist Pearl S. Buck spent most of her life in China. She knows the pre-revolutionary rural life intimately. Through Wang Lung, Buck shows an entire culture.

Wang Lung puts his heart and soul into farming and O-lan, a former kitchen slave, is beside him every step. Besides doing housework, she works with Wang Lung in the fields, stopping only to bear his children.

Hard work — and good luck — eventually make them rich. But wealth is a mixed blessing.

Wang Lung buys a second, expensive wife. His sons are rebellious. He’s forced to take in his uncle’s family. And the doctor cannot cure O-lan’s fatal illness for any amount of money.

The Good Earth reads more like biography than like fiction. Perhaps that’s one reason the novel has endured. Wang Lung’s bafflingly un-American ways of thinking would seem preposterous in a standard American novel format.

Don’t be put off by all Buck’s literary awards. Her writing is simple and direct, not in the least “literary.” You’ll find The Good Earth easy reading.

The Good Earth
By Pearl S. Buck
John Day Co., 1931.
#1 bestseller  in 1931
My grade: Grade: A
 
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni