Simon Called Peter: WWI Doxies and Orthodoxies

Robert Keable’s Simon Called Peter is a World War I era staging of the Gospel story of how Simon was redeemed and refitted for God’s work after denying Christ three times.

Peter Graham is a young clergyman with a promising future in the Anglican church. When England declares war on Germany, Peter insists on going to France as a chaplain, where he has a cushy berth behind the lines.

Peter finds the platitudes that sounded good in England are meaningless to both soldiers and civilians behind the lines in France.

Depressed, and desperate, Peter writes his fiancée, “I am going to eat and drink with publicans and sinners; maybe I shall find my Master still there.”

She breaks the engagement.

Peter’s depression is relieved by Julie Gamelyn, a vivacious nurse from Africa, with whom he falls in love.

Julie wants to find her passion in sexual union; Peter wants to find his in spiritual union.  Julie tells Peter, “There’s only one real rule left in life for most of us, Peter, and that’s this: ‘Be a good pal, and don’t worry.’ ”

That’s not enough for Peter, yet he’s ready to ditch his orthodoxy for an ordinary doxy.

Keable makes it appear Peter does nothing during the war but smoke, drink, and think about why he’s such a failure as a clergyman. The plot is so absurd and Keable’s characters so stereotyped that it’s hard to see to take Peter’s quest for true faith seriously.

Like others of the era,  Keable’s novel skewers “contented backboneless religion,” which it assumes but never shows.

Keable offers the love of God as an alternative to religion. I’m not sure that’s any less platitudinous than the lines Peter rejected.

Simon Called Peter
Robert Keable
1922 Bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg ebook # 14579
My grade: C+
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Innocent Visits of Elizabeth Ridicule Immorality

The Visits of Elizabeth by Elinor Glyn consists of a series of letters written by a 17-year-old girl to her invalid mother while visiting relatives who are obliged by family ties to see that Elizabeth meets eligible men.

Elizabeth is a pretty, vivacious, and principled debutant. Her  keen powers of observation and highly developed sense of the ridiculous get plenty of exercise among her aristocratic relatives and their not-so-aristocratic hangers-on. Elizabeth  regularly misunderstands the significance of what relates. Readers less innocent than Elizabeth will see what she doesn’t.

Elizabeth’s relatives and their cronies may not rate high on morals, but the family knows too well the importance of unblemished reputation if a girl is to make a good match for them to let the girl’s naïveté to get her into serious trouble.

The Visits of Elizabeth bubbles with fun and laugh-out-loud lines for those who know French and enough about 19th century European society to grasp the allusions Elizabeth misses.   Many contemporary readers, however, will miss a great deal of the plot and the most of the pleasure of this novel.

Project Gutenberg

The Visits of Elizabeth
By Elinor Glyn
1901 Bestseller 6
Project Gutenberg e-book #10959

©Linda Gorton Aragoni

Clichés and cliffhangers fill Helmet of Navarre

Bertha Runkle’s Helmet of Navarre is a thriller set in 16th century France with a new intrigue at every turn of the page and a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter.

France is in turmoil after the murder of Henry III. Huguenots under Henry of Navarre battle the Catholic League led by the Duc Mayenne. After three years’ deliberation, the Duc of St. Quentin has decided to throw his weight behind Navarre, although his son Etienne is in love with the Lorance, ward of the head of the Catholic party.

When St. Quentin openly goes to Paris, which is controlled by the Catholic League, his page, Felix Broux, follows him to the city. His first night, Felix sees three men in a supposedly unoccupied haunted house. He gets in through an unlocked window and drops into a plot to have Etienne kill St. Quentin.

Runkle pulls out every cliché to keep the story going: mistaken identity, secret tunnels, stolen ciphers, and the obligatory disguised hero visiting his girlfriend in the enemy camp.

Runkle’s fast pace keeps readers from noticing the string of coincidences substituting for a plot is too thin to support scrutiny or that the characters are no more substantial than the plot. If readers notice how weak the novel is, that realization won’t come until after they’ve enjoyed swashbuckling entertainment.

Project Gutenberg

Helmet of Navarre
by Bertha Runkle
Illus. by Andre Castaigne
Century, 1901
Project Gutenberg e-book #14219
My grade: B-

©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Shadows on the Rock Lacks Substance

Shadows on the Rock is Willa Cather’s light, historical novel about the French in Quebec around 1700.

Apothecary Euclide Auclair came to Quebec as physician to the Count de Frontenac. When his wife died, Euclide was left to raise their daughter, Cecile, by himself.

His skill at compounding drugs makes Euclide welcome in homes of the elite as well as the poor.

At 12, Ceclie keeps house for her father, does all her mother’s charitable works, studies the classics, tends the shop when her father is out on calls, and spends hours playing with her friend, Jacques.

Between them, Euclide and Cecile know everyone and everything that goes on in Quebec.

Although there is always the potential for serious trouble from the British or the Indians, daily life revolves around petty annoyances that take on monumental proportions in the closed community. People take sides in the feud between the count and the old bishop and in the feud between the old bishop and the new one.

I kept anticipating a crisis that never came.

Euclie and Cecile are pleasant, but not memorable, characters. Their only heroism is in facing the daily monotony of their lives without complaint — a heroism that makes for better lives than for entertaining reading.

Shadows on the Rock
by Willa Cather
Alfred A. Knopf, 1931
280 pages
1931 bestseller #2
My grade: C
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Take Chances Without Thinking

If you don’t look too closely, A. Hamilton Gibb’s 1930 bestseller, Chances, is a heart-warming tale of love between brothers.

Tom and Jack Ingleside are 15 and 13½ respectively when they are packed off to boarding school in France to crack their British insularity.  Until they are finished at Oxford and launched on their careers, the brothers share everything.

Then both boys fall for Molly Prescott, a Paris-educated artist they knew as children. Neither brother is aware of the other’s interest in her. After a squabble with Jack, Molly accepts Tom.

The brothers go off to war.

On leave from France, Jack and Molly reunite. When Tom learns his fiancee has left him for his brother, he refuses to even speak to Jack.

When the push comes, however, Tom proves blood is thicker than water.

Beneath the melodrama, the plot won’t hold up. It is incredible that two boys nearly as close as twins can both be madly in love and neither have an inkling of the other’s feelings.

Apparently the continental education didn’t achieve its aim. The boys developed good accents, but remained emotionally insulated when it comes to the most basic of human relationships.

by A. Hamilton Gibbs
Little, Brown,1930
285 pages
1930# 8
My grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

WWI’s Horror In Details of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was acclaimed the greatest novel of the great war when it appeared in 1918.

Few today would rate it so highly.

Vicente Blasco Ibanez relies heavily on exposition, paints all French as noble and all Germans as monsters, and shifts focus unnecessarily. But despite its flaws, The Four Horsemen is still worth reading.

To escape military service, Marcelo Desnoyers flees to Argentina, where he and a German marry a rancher’s daughters.

Both ex-patriots become rich and return home. The German’s son goes into the military. The Frenchman’s son becomes a painter and philanderer. After Julio seduces a friend of his father, the elder Desnoyers refuses to see him again.

To fill the void in his life, Desnoyers begins collecting art in his Marne River castle. When World War I begins, Desnoyers is caught in the Battle of the Marne.

Afterward he is old, sad, and vehemently anti-German. Mutual emptiness reunites father and son until war parts them forever.

The novel’s strength lies in tiny details, like a farmer swerving his plow around mounds that indicate buried corpses, and  Desnoyers’ reply when asked in what capacity he served during the Battle of the Marne.

“Merely as a victim,” he replies.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
By Vicente Blasco Ibanez
Trans. Charlotte Brewster Jordan
E.P. Dutton, 1918
Project Gutenberg ebook #1484
489 pages
My grade: B+
©2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The edge is off Cutlass Empire

During the 1600s, England, France, and Spain struggled for world domination. Intrigues in the European courts had effects around the globe. F. Van Wyck Mason takes readers back to that time with Cutlass Empire, a based on the true story of a privateer who became governor of Jamaica.

The novel is a swashbuckler whose swash has long since buckled.

Washed up — literally — on a Caribbean island, Harry watches helplessly as Spaniards torture and murder. Harry determines to get revenge and make his fortune doing it.

He takes commissions from the British or French to attack Spanish shipping. But land fighting, not sea battles, are Harry’s forte.

Seeing that England needs only control a few critical islands to keep Spain from exploiting all her New World possessions, Harry goes for the kill.

In 1670, he marches his ruffians across the Isthmus of Panama and captures Panama City — months after England and Spain have penned a peace treaty.

Harry’s brilliant campaign was a criminal act.

Mason has written an historical novel with emphasis on history. The plot feels threadbare. The main characters are shallow creatures from romance novels.

If Mason had attempted a narrower story, he might have achieved a far better novel.

Cutlass Empire
F. Van Wyck Mason
Doubleday, 1949
396 pages
1949 Bestseller # 8
My Grade: C-
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Moneyman Gives Good Value

The Moneyman, Thomas B. Costain’s novel of 15th century French intrigue and counter-intrigue. is a much better novel than the tales of the Christian era for which Costain is famous.

“The Moneyman” is Jacques Coeur, semi-official financier for Charles VII. For years, Coeur manipulated French policy through the king’s mistress, Agnes Sorel. When Agnes becomes ill, Coeur must find a replacement so the king won’t turn to other advisers after Agnes dies.

Coeur finds and trains Valerie, a poor girl who looks like Agnes. When Agnes dies shortly after Coeur and Valerie visit her, the pair is charged with her murder. Coeur’s worst enemies are to be the judges at the trial; Coeur is not allowed to examine witnesses or call witnesses.

Right to the end I couldn’t figure out how Coeur and Valerie were going to get out of their predicament—and it mattered to me that they did.

Oddly enough, neither the plot nor the characters of  The Moneyman are unusual. In The Moneyman, however, Costain has woven them so well into the historical account of battles to evict the English from France that the plot and characters seem alive.

Rediscover The Moneyman. It’s still a great read.

The Moneyman
By Thomas B. Costain
Doubleday, 1947
434 pages
#2 Bestseller for 1947
My Grade: B+
© 2006 Linda Gorton Aragoni